connections

Good Alchemy

Taylor Woodruff '12Taylor Woodruff '12 is reaching Tacoma's youth through skateboarding.

Even a seasoned skateboarder and creative visionary like Taylor Woodruff ’12 couldn’t foresee just how far a board on four little wheels could take a person. A California native, he arrived on campus at a time when nearly half of Tacoma’s high school students failed to graduate within four years, and too many kids were dropping out. Taylor wanted to use skateboarding as a vehicle to reach Tacoma’s youth. In 2013, he co-founded Alchemy Skateboarding, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming young lives through skateboarding.

According to Taylor, skaters often struggle with a negative public image and a widespread assumption that they disrespect authority and vandalize property. The skaters he knows are intelligent, resourceful, and creative people. Kickflip, ollie, 50/50, 360, he would steer them toward learning and growth both on and off a skateboard.

Taylor knew that in order to make the most impact, he would need community partners. “Luckily we’re in Tacoma, where people are doing innovative things,” he says. In 2014, Alchemy reached out to Jon Ketler, co-director of Tacoma’s School of the Arts (SOTA), a public school that emphasizes hands-on learning, with a proposal to teach a class built around skateboarding. The class was approved.

For the past three years, Alchemy has offered classes through SOTA and SAMI, the public Science and Math Institute. About 50 students each semester take Taylor’s classes, which cover skateboarding, physics, graphic design, woodworking, writing, history, culture, public space use, and safety. “My students show up regularly and on time to class,” he says.

One of Alchemy Skateboarding's skate classes

At SAMI, which is located within Tacoma’s 760-acre Point Defiance Park, Taylor leads his students on a skate traversing the picturesque Five Mile Drive, skirting the park’s old-growth forest and the Puget Sound waterfront. They also build custom longboards they can use for transportation. Guest speakers and field trips to businesses help round out their learning, culminating in a final presentation on a topic of their choice.

Alchemy has provided an edge to boost Tacoma’s graduation rate—up from 55 percent in 2010 to 85 percent in 2016, according to the Foundation for Tacoma Students—by engaging area youth through creative partnerships and programs. According to the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, Alchemy reaches more than 1,000 people annually.

Last May, Taylor’s students exhibited their designs in the Spaceworks gallery downtown. “We’re helping them channel their passion,” says Taylor, who built and skated modular furniture put on interactive display at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma for his self- designed studio art class at the University of Puget Sound. “We work collaboratively to build a future where skateboarders are recognized as positive contributors to Tacoma.”

As program director, Taylor makes sure that Alchemy takes skating beyond schools and into the community through a wide range of programs and pop-up skate parks. “Skating is an inclusive culture. Everyone has the capacity for growth if someone steps in and tips the balance in their favor,” he says.

Taylor is piloting a pair of eight-week programs called METALS (Mentoring, Educating, Transforming, and Leading through Skating), in partnership with the Pierce County Juvenile Court, which he hopes will help transform the lives of young parolees. Four more eight-week programs are planned for this year. Alchemy also takes skateboarding to homeless kids living at the Tacoma Rescue Mission, and has set up a pop-up skate park at the shelter.

Sometimes Taylor sees kids who lack basic necessities such as food, housing, and shoes. When he senses their need, he starts by asking if they want to go skate. “It’s a way to get something out. It cultivates letting go so you can focus on moving forward, which happens to be the case with life. We support each other here,” says Taylor, who gives donated food or shoes to young people in need.

Taylor grew up in suburban Los Angeles, where his father told him to do what he loved and to find good people to do it with. Back then, that meant learning new skate tricks from his best friend. “He was way better at skating, art, and music than I was,” says Taylor of his friend, who had attended a school where he didn’t fit, had slipped into drugs, and had been sent away. Taylor never saw him again. “He wasn’t a bad kid. We always said we wanted to create a place where people could belong.”

It occurs to him now that he’s making good on their shared dream. Alchemy shares space with Grit City Grindhouse, a skateboarding retailer Taylor co-founded in 2013. Visit the mustard-colored 3,000-square-foot corner building on South Seventh Street downtown and you’ll find young people hanging out on a couch watching skating videos, building boards, or practicing tricks.

Taylor and Alchemy co-founder Robert Boyle originally secured the space by pitching a business model for Grit City Grindhouse to Spaceworks Tacoma, a program designed to fill empty storefronts and vacant spaces with art and creative enterprise. He got approved to use the space rent-free for the first six months. It’s where Alchemy operates the city’s only indoor community skate park, offering skate lessons, camps, and group skates. Taylor built about 60 percent of its interchangeable ramps, also used at Go Skate Tacoma, a free event at Tollefson Plaza that attracted nearly 2,000 people last year.

“I was lucky enough to help with Go Skate,” says Claire Canfield ’18, who interned with Alchemy as part of Puget Sound’s Summer Immersion Internship Program.

At Alchemy, Claire fulfilled her desire to connect to the broader Tacoma community. She organized donations for Go Skate and helped create a Resource Board for youth looking for assistance with housing, food, homework, and other support.

“Taylor encouraged me to say yes to new things,” says Claire, whose experience as a roller derby skater made her a good fit. Then again, anybody who walks through the door of Alchemy/Grindhouse is a good fit. It’s a community of belonging that knows the importance of getting up when you fall down, in skating and in life.

Sandra Sarr