Thalente Biyela was 14 the first time skateboard legend Tony Hawk spotted him ripping tricks at a skatepark during a visit to Durban, South Africa.
“He stood out because he had such incredible style and natural talent,” Hawk recalled years later.
He pulled the teen aside and told him he wanted to send him some gear from his skating company, but was stunned when Biyela declined his offer.
“You can’t,” he told Hawk. “I live on the street.”
Homeless since the age of eight, Biyela began fending for himself on the tough streets of Durban rather than living with his abusive stepfather. He slept under trash cans at a local skatepark, often using his board as a makeshift pillow at night.
Now 22, living in Los Angeles and sponsored by a handful of skateboard companies, Biyela admits that he still pinches himself whenever he thinks about how far he’s come since his days on the street.
“It’s still so surreal how I’ve somehow been taken from one world and put into another,” he tells PEOPLE. “I feel so lucky that I made it out and I never got killed. I had a lot of friends who weren’t so lucky and couldn’t rise above the darkness.”
The film not only tracks Biyela’s years spent trying to survive life on the streets, but follows the group of friends who reached out to help the lanky, humble skater pursue his dream of skating and competing in America.
One of those who lent a helping hand was top pro-skater Kenny Anderson, who first saw Biyela in a YouTube video. He was so impressed by what he saw, he offered to help him “unlock his potential” if he ever made it stateside.
“Thalente, like a lot of us, used skating to save his life,” explains Anderson, who also turned to the sport to escape his own tough childhood. “But his story is way bigger than skateboarding. It touches anyone who hears it.”