When Mike Donelon became a Long Beach city councilman in 1994, he made it clear he was representing the people at street level.
That quickly morphed into helping the kids on skateboards in the streets.
Twenty-five years later, hundreds of youngsters have gone through "the program" at ASK — Action Sports Kids — and the city's nine skate parks are among the safest gathering places in the city. Donelon retired three years ago from a career as a general contractor, but he admits the skateboard revolution he has spearheaded for a quarter century is his true calling.
"There's never been a bad day doing this," Donelon says. "We continue to grow, to evolve. It is bad when there is a crime at a skate park, but we've only had two times in the last 25 years when we had to call the cops. We have a great relationship with the police department."
Donelon only served one term as the Seventh District City Councilman, but he made the most of it. He was aware of the issues with youngsters skateboarding on sidewalks, plazas and flights of stairs, and says he got his start advocating for them back then.
"It was in ’95, when I found out that skateboarding wasn't one of the sports in a bill where the cities could have limited liability," he recalls. "I lobbied to get that changed. Then, in 1996, we started looking at skate parks."
At the time, there wasn't a single skate park in Long Beach. Donelon argued it wasn't fair to make skateboarding illegal in public places without giving the skaters a place to enjoy their passion.
"When we started, I put out 25 flyers," Donelon says. "Fifty kids showed up. We started going to meetings to talk about skate parks. I'd bring about 10 kids with me, and they'd do all the speaking. It sort of organically evolved from there… I just wanted them to have a safe, clean place to go."
After a solid year of lobbying, and pushing from the inside as a city councilman, the money was in place for Long Beach's first skate park. It was located in El Dorado Park, next to the softball fields, and some of Donelon's first crew helped design the facility.
It was popular from the start — which actually caused some issues. There were many debates and meetings about how to monitor safety equipment compliance, maintain a code of ethics and fair play, and more.
While the adults debated, Donelon watched while the adults debated, then went out the the skate park, making the skaters responsible for their own conduct. And it worked — the skaters might ignore park personnel, but they looked up to and listened to the more experienced skaters.
Donelon left the City Council in 1998, but he didn't leave the skateboarders. His loose coalition gradually grew and became a bit more formal. The goal continued to be to create more places to skate, with a push for an even bigger skate park including the deep bowls popular then. The result was the Houghton Park Skate Park, still the largest in the city. It is used constantly, with lights to add hours.
"We'd meet every second Saturday, sometimes every other month during the school year, and talk about stuff," Donelon says. "Then we'd go out and skate… What I, what we really stressed was you didn't have to be a good skater, but we wanted a good person who skated."
There were different names for the skateboard group — the Long Beach Skate Park Committee evolved until it became Action Sports Kids in 2008, when a foundation was formed and the official 501c3 nonprofit approved.
By that time, there were nine skate parks scattered around the city. Instead of officials looking at places where skateboarders congregated as spots for trouble, skate parks began to be used to improve troubled areas. For example, the 14th Street strip park had become notorious for drug use and violence. The solution? A skate plaza that is busy every day. It wasn't a panacea, but it was a vast improvement, officials said.
"When I talk about what's going on at McBride, I know good things are happening, not trouble," Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews said last month at the Jeffrey Dempsey Jr. Memorial AM/JAM at McBride Skate Park (Donelon's group helped design the park). "These are good kids doing good things, and I thank you for that."
These days, ASK has a national reputation, with support from skateboard legend Tony Hawk and involvement in the national Dew Tour. Donelon helped the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau attract the Dew Tour four years ago with descriptions of the skateboard culture and city support in Long Beach.
ASK now gives out scholarships, school supplies and more. Donelon drives a group of ambassadors around, extolling the virtues of ASK and a skateboard life. It brings in more donations — and skaters.
But, he says, it continues to be all about the kids. Now that he has retired, he spends most days with the kids and at the small, donated meeting space.
Most of the skaters call him Pops, and he can be seen at every event encouraging, cajoling and fixing equipment. Just don't ask him the full name of that boy or girl he just got done consoling.
"No clue," he says, smiling. "He's just one of us."