The village of Puke is the home of Tonga’s first purpose-built skateboard ramp, thanks to the efforts of Chris and Ashley Paquette who added it as one of the main features of their non-profit organisation, One Love Inc. The ramp was funded through the help of an online fundraiser, as well as the generosity of several local Tongan business owners who offered discounts on building materials.
Chris and Ashley relocated from the United States to Tonga with their three children in 2012. Chris, a master builder, grew up skateboarding and constructing skateboard parks with his brother in their home state of Massachusetts. Naturally, he brought his skateboards to Tonga, even though he was unsure if he would find any suitable places to go skateboarding. It didn’t take long, however, for Chris to become known for his willingness to share his skateboards with local kids, and neighbours were soon paying him frequent visits to go skateboarding. By appearance, the new skateboard ramp is a fitting addition to the Paquette property, as the colourful family home has become sort of a landmark in the area. Chris designed and constructed the unique dwelling completely out of locally sourced materials that he collected from various locations and stockpiled over a period of time.
Skateboarding originated in the United States in the 1950’s, but over the past two decades the worldwide popularity of the sport has grown exponentially. In recent years, skateboarding facilities have been built in several developing nations such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Uganda, and Palestine as part of youth sport, education and empowerment programmes. Tonga appears to be one of the first Pacific Island nations to have a programme that utilises skateboarding for the purposes of enhancing the lives of young people.
Empowering and educating the Tongan youth through skateboarding is exactly what Chris and Ashley plan to do through One Love Inc., and so far the ramp has been very popular with local children who are often initially drawn to the ramp out of pure curiosity. Ashley says “The kids are amazing at skateboarding, both the boys and the girls. I’ve had the privilege of watching the kids progress, they are quick learners”, adding that skateboarding “gives these kids hope that they can do more than they think.” There are already plans in place to expand the existing ramp into a full-fledged skatepark as additional funding for the project becomes available.
As there are no stores in Tonga that stock the professional quality skateboard decks and other goods needed for ramp skating, all of these products must be imported from overseas. Ashley explains “We started out with two skateboards and 15 kids, and now we have 12 skateboards thanks to a few people who donated boards”. More skateboards will be needed as interest in skateboarding grows, and as the existing skateboards are worn down from the heavy use that they are currently receiving.
The ramp is the ideal size for beginners to learn the basics, and the Paquettes are open to helping anyone who is interested to learn how to skate. The ramp is only off limits when nobody is home, or when it is wet because the surface becomes slippery and dangerous. In addition, the parents of children who want to use the ramp must sign waivers to acknowledge that skateboarding is a potentially dangerous activity (Although statistically, skateboarding is safer than many traditional sports). Ashley says there are plans to do more fundraising for helmets and pads in order to reduce the overall risk of injuries, especially with beginners.
It is clear that the Paquettes have big plans for the future of skateboarding in Tonga. “We have four years to get these Tongan kids ready” says Chris on the topic of the recent decision to include skateboarding in the 2020 Summer Olympics. In addition to the plan to construct a larger skatepark in Tonga, Chris and Ashley also want to conduct skill-based workshops specifically designed for Tongan youth. Once these programmes are up and running in Tonga, the Paquettes plan to spearhead more skateboarding-based educational initiatives in other Pacific Island nations.
For now, the Paquettes will continue to promote skateboarding in Tonga with their new ramp. Ashley explains how they are encouraged by the positive feedback they have received from locals, “They are so happy something is being done for the kids in Tonga. They ask how much we are charging for the kids to skate, and I always reassure them it’s free. It’s something positive for the youth of Tonga, and no one is trying to profit from it.”