'A man on a Mission with his Skateboard' by Brendan Whitt
Ja' Ovvani Garrison
What is passion and how can it contribute to a cause? As America frantically tries to figure out how to enrich and cultivate those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to keep the country globally competitive, there are hidden gems that are already doing the necessary work to uplift their communities. Ja’Ovvoni Garrison is a 26 year old skater from Cleveland who is carving out his own mold to make things happen.
Ja’Ovvoni started skating around the age of 12 when his mother bought him a cheap Walmart skateboard. Ja’Ovvoni skated with his friends, watched skaters like Rodney Mullen and Kareem Campbell, and frequently played a demo of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater which he had gotten with a pizza from Pizza Hut.
By 16 Ja’Ovvoni had finally gotten his first real deck. “It was really just my grind to learn.” he said when asked what has kept him on a board all of this time. He basked in the challenges that life and skating presented to him. “My aunt inspired me to make a plan for it.”
The sun was shining radiantly over the Cle. I waited anxiously for Ja’Ovvoni to call and tell me that he was out side. We got in his car and talked for a bit as he checked and sent emails. I asked him some follow up questions about Skaters Next Door and Skate RTA, his urban apparel line, before we pulled off to go pick up his friend from work.
Ja'Ovvoni’s passion sent chills down my spine. He spoke so well and was really able to articulate what skating means to him and what he hopes to do with it. “You can give back to the hood without makin’ it. I don’t need a million dollars to make a difference.” More importantly than trying to get skaters sponsored or make money off of his brand, Ja'Ovvoni is enriching youth through his Skaters Next Door initiative.
In 2008 Ja'Ovvoni started providing skate lessons as a way to help build the Cleveland skate scene. He offered free lessons to youth at the Stella Walsh recreation center on Broadway on Cleveland's east side. Ja'Ovvoni credits Marty Piczazak who “fought to make it happen” as he put it.
By 2010 Ja'Ovvoni realized the social impact and acceptance that skateboarding had around the Slavic Village community. He created Skaters Next Door, or S.N.D. as a way to engage youth in the area by giving them an outlet of expression. The cartoon Network show Kids Next Door (K.N.D.), inspired the name of Ja'Ovvoni’s organization. “It was a show about kids protecting wha
t was important to them like their ‘kid’s rights’” he said. “That’s what S.N.D. means to me.”
Ja' Ovvani posing with some of the skaters who attended the
We took a drive down to the Steak and Shake in the Steelyard Commons. When we got inside Ja'Ovvoni was greeted by a few of his skate buddies who all worked at Steak and Shake. Xavier, who we were there to pick up, was getting ready to clock out. Ja'Ovvoni’s other friends Javier and Rob were just beginning their shifts.
After scoring a burger and fries on Ja’Ovvoni’s dime; Ja’ Ovvoni, Xavier and I set off for Stella Walsh. When we pulled up to the dormant shell of what used to be South High School, Ja‘Ovvoni, Xavier and I were greeted by over a dozen skaters. Everyone was happy to see Ja’ as they call him. They were excited to see what decks, trucks and wheels he had waiting for them.
Through Skaters Next Door Ja’ Ovvoni can give skaters who can’t make the trip to the West side of Cleveland, the more popular side with skaters, a safe environment and network of other skaters to skate with. Through the non-profit organization Neighborhood Connections, Ja’ Ovvoni was able to host skate competitions and giveaways like the one I accompanied him on.
Ja’ Ovvoni has raised over $40,000 in grants and funding through neighborhood connections. Over the past few years he has given out over 400 complete skateboards and decks around the Slavic Village community. For 2016 he is eyeing his goal of donating an additional 200 skateboards and decks within the community to continue his agenda of growing the skate culture around Cleveland.
After Ja’ Ovvoni passed out dozens of decks, wheels and trucks, the skaters were ready to get rolling. With the backdrop of the old and vacant South High school they ollie’d, nollie’d and kick flipped the afternoon away. I always wanted to be a skater myself but never put the work in to learn. Watching everyone skate was inspiring.
When I asked Xavier what he liked most about skating he told me “It’s the happiness and anger. It’s like an addiction. You don’t want to but you have to.” One of the younger skaters Andre, aged 14 simply told me, “Skate is life.”
I watched the gang skate for a few hours as Ja’ Ovvoni took pictures for his Skaters Next Door blog. After the skate sesh everyone looked happy and tired. As the older skaters all left, Ja’ Ovvoni reminisced with a few of the younger skaters about when he was their age.
He talked about having to catch the bus from the other side of town with a backpack full of juice from a convenient mart and his board attached to his book bag just like the youngins. Ja’ Ovvoni walked them to the closest corner store to buy them some Arizona teas for their trip home.
Me and Xavier stayed behind and chatted about our favorite skaters and other hobbies which included our shared interest in journalism. By the end of the day I felt as though I was apart of a brotherhood. After witnessing what Ja’ Ovvoni does with his passion I realized that it is always better to give than to receive. When you give, you will receive more than what you could imagine.
Click the link below for information about Skaters Nest Door and how you can help!