AVENAL, California. (KGPE) – It’s known for its pistachio crops and its state prison. The small city of Avenal, California may not be well known to many, but skateboards are helping bring the prison and the community together.
Nestled in the western flank of the San Joaquin Valley in Kings County, is Avenal.
“It’s a small friendly community where people like to help each other,” said Mayor Alvaro Preciado.
Of the 15,000 people who call Avenal home, 86% identify as Hispanic or Latino. Most work in agriculture, for the school district or city, or for Avenal State Prison. Unlike most prisons, it was the residents of Avenal who advocated for its construction in the 1980s and was the first small town to successfully obtain a state prison.
“It was a way to bring exposure and jobs to the community and it also brought us a closer relationship at the state level,” said Preciado.
About five years ago, Fresno resident and skateboarder, Rodney Rodriguez came up with an idea.
“The prison and the city didn’t seem to have much communication until I brought skateboards in,” said Rodriguez.
He founded ‘Fresno Skateboard Salvage,’ Fresno Skateboard Salvage a nonprofit, providing underserved children in the Central Valley with new skateboards. He collects old, worn skateboards and gives them to local artists to paint and turn into artwork that is later auctioned off. The money raised goes toward buying new skateboards for children.
He hands them off at local skate parks and other community events around Fresno and the broader Central Valley. Since the program began about five years ago, he has distributed more than 1,200 new skateboards.
“I didn’t realize skateboarding kept me from joining a gang. I liked this activity so much more that I shy away from what other people were doing, which was easier to fall into, I guess,” said Rodriguez.
About two years ago while Rodriguez was working his day job as a truck driver, he drove by a local prison and had an idea.
“It struck me there might be really creative men in there who if offered the opportunity would help,” said Rodriguez.
Avenal State Prison became his first prison partner, where now, more than 30 incarcerated artists take part in the program.
“I’ve been able to reflect on who I am, who I was, and where I’m going with my life,” said Monte Galvan who is incarcerated at Avenal State Prison.
Galvan said the experience is rewarding and has allowed him to express himself through art. He said it’s helping prepare him for his future and his goals of getting a degree and becoming an art instructor.
“Growing up here when I was a child it’s been a great thing to give back to my community by making amends and doing so has been a good thing for myself and everyone else around me,” said Galvan.
He said the program has helped him bond with his 14-year-old son, who skateboards.
“He actually shared it with a lot of his friends at school and also the kids he was playing skateboards with he showed them the videos of the last time we did a news interview, and he was really proud to share that with them because of the unfortunate circumstance of me being incarcerated,” said Galvan.
The program has become so popular, Rodriguez is now getting noticed by other state prisons, like Corcoran. Recently, dozens of boards were given to children in Avenal, connecting them with the inmates, just a few miles away.
“I’ve seen quite a few skateboards coming through the gate in the morning. “This is a great way for them to get more active and a great way for them to get around town,” said Avenal Elementary School Principal Blanca Rodriguez.
The program not only gives opportunity to those inside confinement, but out.
“I see what it’s doing for not only kids here in the park but for the morale in the prison,” said Rodney Rodriguez.