Growing up in a poor family in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Chansangva “Tin” Kouv encountered social barriers, financial difficulties and frequent violence.
“In my childhood, I suffered physical abuse from my father almost every day which gave me low self-esteem and resulted in me being scared to meet new people,” says Tin.
When she was six, Tin dreamt of becoming a teacher for an NGO where she could help poor children receive a better education away from violence and live a life of equality.
When she was 18, she started volunteering with a partner organisation of Skateistan Cambodia, an NGO which uses skateboarding as a bridge to empower and educate children in need.
Tin says when she joined Skateistan in 2012, there was nothing else like it in the capital.
But she was left wondering why more people weren’t joining, especially girls. She decided to practise in the hopes of one day being hired by the NGO as a coach.
“I was lucky that Skateistan chose me to work with them. This was unexpected. I have become a real teacher, as I had dreamt of since I was six years old,” Tin says.
The road wasn’t easy, however, as she admits she fell off her skateboard frequently when she started and was looked down on because she is a girl.
“I wanted them to stop looking down on me. I kept practising every day to get better even though my lip bled and I hurt my ankle. What they said hurt, but it inspired me to get better,” Tin says.
“Now I can skate better than them. I’m one of the best female skaters in Cambodia and they look up to me.”
Tin, 27, is now the general manager at Skateistan Cambodia and is in charge of the finance, human resources and development/communications departments.
She manages annual project plans and oversees the implementation of Skateistan Cambodia’s annual core programmes – Skate and Create, Youth Leadership, Dropping In and Outreach.
Born in Afghanistan
Skateistan was founded in 2008 by lifelong Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich while he was living in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Percovich was skating on the streets when he noticed that children, especially kids working on the street, were fascinated by his skateboard. Inspired by their interest, he started to run informal skate sessions at an old out-of-use fountain.
Children from different ethnicities and economic backgrounds started showing up and Percovich realised that skateboarding could be used to unify and empower them.
Skateistan was born from this idea and its first skate school opened in Kabul in 2009.
In 2011 in Cambodia, Pecquer was using a similar tactic, running skateboard sessions for local children in the capital.
After learning about Skateistan, Pecquer contacted its head office in Kabul. Before long, Skateistan became a reality in Cambodia and Pecquer was appointed country manager.
Tin was one of the earliest students to join the programme, which combined skateboarding and education in a stress-free, fun environment.
Tin says: “Skateboarding helps children feel confident, gain resilience and learn to set and achieve goals. Those are very important skills for the rest of their lives.
“It’s also really important to have fun and we aim for every skate session and every lesson to be fun for our students.”
Skating towards a better life
Tin says the organisation offers four annual programmes aimed at introducing children to skateboarding, teaching life skills and providing educational resources.
“Outreach, [which is] outside of [the] Skate Schools [programme], is a programme that brings Skateistan educators to children with limited resources. They introduce new communities to skateboarding through creative activities and develop partnerships to connect young people and their families to important social services,” she says.
“The Skate and Create programme helps students build life skills through a balance of social sports and structured learning. Skateistan’s educators lead activities to promote wellness, equality, creative expression and knowledge of natural sciences.
“The Dropping In programme provides learning spaces and resources where students can develop their aspirations and realise their potential.
“Motivated students are invited to join the Youth Leadership programme to become more involved in developing our community at Skateistan.”
Skateistan’s programmes are available to children between five and 17 years old, regardless of their physical abilities or literacy levels.
It operates three skate schools in Afghanistan (in Kabul, Mazaar-e-Sharif and Bamyan), one in Phnom Penh and one in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Tin says: “Over 80 per cent of our students in Cambodia are from low-income families. Our programmes are free,” says Tin.
At Skateistan, she says, children learn about the world and explore their place in it.
“Our lessons focus on how we can make the world a better place, from understanding the importance of community to exploring how we can protect the environment or make our cities safer.
“We help children to feel confident enough to pursue their dreams, and we encourage them to dream as big as they like,” Tin says.
Skateistan focuses on groups that are often excluded from sport and educational opportunities with a focus on girls, children with disabilities and children from low-income families.
Paying it forward
Pisey, whose real name is withheld, came to the NGO from a difficult family life. Violence was a common threat at home and in her community.
She didn’t attend school and didn’t have any friends until she joined Skateistan. At the beginning, she was scared of the new environment.
Tin says: “Over time, we worked closely with her to help her feel more confident. We never force a child to skate before they’re ready, so we sat with her in the skate sessions and explained what other children were doing and how skateboarding works.”
She says Pisey is doing well now. She’s built up her confidence and made several friends at Skateistan. Pisey has also become a good skater and she spends time helping other children learn at the skate park.
Tin says: “We aim for 50 per cent girls’ participation in all programmes and we run specific, girls-only sessions to ensure that they feel safe and encouraged. We employ female educators so that girls have role models to aspire to.”
Sophea, 21, was a student before becoming an educator at Skateistan. When she started to skate, things started to change for her. She was inspired by her female educators and started to envision a different future for herself.
Tin says: “Having completed the Youth Leadership programme, Sophea volunteered as a skate coach. Now she is a member of staff at the Skate School, helping other children like her set goals and work towards a better future.”
Though skateboarding is known as a difficult sport, children with disabilities are encouraged to join as well.
“We run many programmes for children with disabilities and our staff members receive training in how to instruct children with different levels of abilities. Over 25 per cent of our students in Cambodia are disabled,” Tin says.
“We often work with other NGO partners who have expertise in running programmes for children with disabilities. There is no wrong or right way to skate, which makes it a very accessible sport.
“We don’t mind if a child wants to sit on the board instead of standing on it. We are not trying to create the next generation of pro skateboarders, we are trying to create a safe space where everyone is included.
“And we provide safety gear for every student to make sure people feel safe in the skate park. All of our skate educators are trained in making skateboarding as safe as possible and students learn about safety in the skate park before they try out a skateboard for the first time.”
A decade ago, Tin says there were only a handful of male skaters around. Skateboarding in Phnom Penh at that time represented a new, unique sport with untapped potential.
“These past few years, the number of skaters has increased. Everyone is starting to learn about skateboarding, and especially Skateistan!” she says.
Skateistan relies entirely on donations to run its programmes. It receives support from governments where it operates, foundations, companies and individuals who strive to empower children through skateboarding and education.
Donations can be made at www.skateistan.org, and the NGO can be reached on Instagram and Facebook. Skateistan Cambodia’s headquarters are located in Factory Phnom Penh.