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Omaha Magazine

From the Half Pipe to Full Social Warrior: Mike Smith's Wild Ride

Sep 01, 2020 08:26AM ● By Sean Robinson

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A skateboarding hot dog is something most don't see every day—or ever, for that matter.
Mike Smith isn'
t most.

Amid a sea of other tattoos across his body, this wheeling weenie lives on his thigh and has quite the backstory. Smith, founder of the nonprofit program Skate for Change, joined forces with J.R. Galardi of national hot dog company Wienerschnitzel on a month-long RV fundraising tour for Hot Dogs for Homeless in 2015, with a goal of raising $100,000. That goal was met by more than double, and to celebrate, the Tony Hawk of frankfurters was permanently inked on Smith’s leg. 

The fact that they exceeded the goal was no surprise to Andrew Norman, Smith’s co-founder and co-executive director at Rabble Mill, the umbrella organization for Skate for Change.

“People who hear about [Skate for Change] from Mike understand that the core motivation for these programs is to help people,” Norman said. “I think the fact that he has spoken to more high school kids than just about anyone else also helps. He just has the ability to get the word out, and really get it to all corners of the country.”

Smith’s name may be generic enough to yield a quarter billion Google results, but there’s no other Mike Smith quite like this one, even without that tattoo. As the founder of Skate for Change, an international nonprofit that empowers skateboarders to support the homeless, he’s giving back by rolling forward—and hoping to take as many with him for the ride as he can.

“I feel like I personally sacrificed everything I can for this cause, and I still have a long way to go as a leader and as a human,” Smith said. “I’ve worked hard like I never thought possible, but there’s a whole community behind this who could say the same thing.”

That now-global community all started with a skateboard and a backpack. In 2011, Smith, then a 25-year-old social worker, would roll through downtown Lincoln to street corners and under bridges to give homeless people supplies such as hygiene kits, water, food, and socks. Kids saw him and wanted to join.

“It was never a, ‘Hey! Let’s start a nonprofit’ sort of thing. It just grew organically,” Smith said. Within a year of starting, a participant in Lincoln moved to Kansas City and started his own chapter. A Seattle chapter began soon afterwards. A chapter started in Germany after Smith spoke to an Omaha school at which an exchange student who was also a skater was present. The student later started a German chapter.

Today, more than 3,000 individuals—or “misfits” as Smith lovingly calls them—across 117 cities and 11 countries have participated in Skate for Change. These individual networks are managed by appointed “city leaders,” young skateboarders who coordinate their local efforts through Skate for Change director Alex Ruybalid.

“Mike’s goal is pretty clear. He wants to provide the initial step for young people, or anyone really, who wants to give back,” Ruybalid said.

“What excites me is an opportunity for kids to do something meaningful to them,” Norman said. “It’s so simple. Look at your community, identify problems in your community, and find a plan of attack to solve them. It encourages kids to hop on their skateboards and go do something.”

A year prior to the start of Skate for Change, Smith also founded The Bay in 2010. First located in a mall and now a 30,000-square-foot warehouse, The Bay is an indoor skatepark and youth outreach center in Lincoln. 

Music, art, and coffee are as prevalent there as kids attempting their first wheelies and ollies. Smith calls it a healthy blend of social work and after-school programming, but its impact goes far beyond that.

The Bay knows no bounds. It acts as a distribution site for the Food Bank of Lincoln, welcomes other nonprofits there to hold events, and has hosted more than 3,000 hours of safe space to the Lincoln community. 

“Kids need somewhere to go, something to do, and people who care,” Smith said. “When you can do those three things well, you really inspire and teach important life lessons. I’m so driven to create this army of kids with awesome skills, upward mobility, and talent.”

Serving as founder of two major nonprofits kept Smith busy enough, but in 2018, he joined Norman as the co-founder and co-executive director of Rabble Mill. This serves as the umbrella organization of The Bay and Hear Nebraska, along with Skate for Change. 

“Our teams were so synergized it was a true one-plus-one-equals-three situation,” Smith said. “Together, our programs create a more connected community through skateboarding, music, and art.”

Of course, for someone who confesses to drinking an “insane amount” of coffee each day, Smith’s to-do list still isn’t long enough. So, he also wrote a book titled Legacy vs. Likes, hosts an interview-style video series with guests like famed skateboarder Ryan Sheckler, and speaks across the world about the importance of living a purposeful life. 

Between sips of coffee and a busy schedule, Smith still finds time to complete stunts that raise funds for his programs. He’s skateboarded across the state of Nebraska three times and slept under a bridge for 27 days. 

“Mike just lives and breathes what he believes,” Ruybalid said.

Not even a global pandemic or civil unrest slows his roll. To minimize in-person contact during the COVID-19 pandemic, Skate for Change asked volunteers to assemble virus defense kits and leave them on corners populated by those experiencing homelessness. Meanwhile, The Bay has transitioned to temporary virtual programming.

“We want to continue to innovate, grow deep, and elevate voices,” Smith said. “We’re asking, ‘how can we use skateboarding for change and to amplify communities?’ It’s about programing for the moment, for what’s important, and for providing equity and inclusivity.”

Spoken like a true rock star of social change. From growing up in Imperial, a small Nebraska town with more cows than people, his impact is now felt worldwide. But Smith is proof all things are possible when you’re a man with a mission—and a skateboard. 

“I’ll always keep fighting for Nebraska kids,” Smith said, “fighting for this next generation to put people first.”

People—and skateboarding hot dogs, of course. 

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This article was printed in the September 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.