Hawk, a former professional skateboarder, has helped build more than 500 skate parks in low-income communities across the nation

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated August 25, 2015 11:50 AM
Credit: Jody Morris

Before a skate park was built in 18-year-old Alberth Mimila’s neighborhood, he says “bad things” like gang violence and drug use were his only outlets.

Since he started skateboarding four years ago, the Long Beach, California, native has found mentors, a job and a passion for volunteering.

“The skate park gave me a place to go when I was upset or emotional,” Mimila tells PEOPLE. “Before, I used to go and do negative things. Now, it’s given me comfort and a home with the people there.”

Young people like Mimila are exactly why former professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, 47, started the Tony Hawk Foundation – to provide the funding, programs, and technical support to build skate parks in low-income communities.

This August, Hawk and foundation board member Ben Harper launched the third annual Boards + Bands auction, selling pro-skaters’ boards with lyrics inscribed by their favorite musicians – from Jay-Z to Elton John – to raise money for programs. The auction is open through Wednesday and is now live on Charity Buzz.

Since its inception, the foundation has helped build over 500 skate parks in low-income areas across the U.S. – from Compton to Detroit – and in developing countries.

“I think these parks give kids a different outlet or sometimes their only outlet,” Hawk says. “Especially the ones who feel disenfranchised or are looking to do something other than mainstream sports. The parks themselves are communities of creativity – when you go there you find likeminded individuals and form very strong bonds.”

This has been particularly true for Mimila who says he’s found countless mentors at the skate parks in his community. One such mentor is Mike Donelon, a former Long Beach city councilman who championed the city’s first skate park in 2000.

Within three years of the skate park’s opening, violent crime in the area decreased by 30 percent and drug-related incidents dropped by 60 percent. Since the incredible outcomes of the first park, seven more have opened up across Long Beach, many with the help of the Tony Hawk Foundation.

“Skate parks save lives,” Donelon, 63, tells PEOPLE. “You enter the parks and you have kids from different cultures, of different genders and ages all getting along. They’re surrounded by gangs, but the skate parks are a safe zones, they’re places where kids can go and feel like a family.”

Donelan was so inspired by the changes these parks brought about in his community that he started a foundation of his own, Action Sports Kids Long Beach.

With help from the Tony Hawk Foundation, ASK Long Beach provides opportunities for the young people of Long Beach to do good in their community through service and civic engagement. The foundation also provides shoes, food and educational support.

Mimila has been involved with ASK Long Beach for three years and is now serving as a paid intern.

He’s also found time to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity – his family lives in a home built by the non-profit. Mimila says that skate boarding hasn’t changed just him, but rather his entire community.

“It’s not the best community,” Mimila says. “But ever since the skate park got built it’s getting better.”