Mike Donelon pulls his gleaming, jet-black Taurus up to the curb at Michael K. Green Skate Park, and kids are all over the car. They emerge from the concrete park on scooters, skateboards and BMX bikes, and when Donelon gets out of the car it's a big tangle of man hugs and pound hugs and a half-dozen variations on the conventional handshake.
He's nothing short of a hero to these kids ranging from grade-schoolers to young adults, most of whom live in the blocks surrounding Green Park at 14th Street and Pacific Avenue, the inner part of the inner city.
The park came from the city of Long Beach and its Parks and Recreation Department, but these kids, the Latinos, the African-Americans, the whites and the Islanders wouldn't tell you that. Mike Donelon, they will all tell you, gave them this oasis.
Donelon spearheaded and pretty much single-handedly launched Long Beach's skate-park program, which has expanded to eight parks, all but one in the city's high-crime, low-income parts of town.
Donelon was a Long Beach councilman representing the 4th District from 1994-1998 when he was given the idea for a skate park in Long Beach.
"A little kid came up to me and said he was tired of getting tickets," Donelon says. "He couldn't skate in schools, he couldn't skate on private property and he said, `Why don't you build me a skate park?' He thought I was a big shot."
Well, he was a big shot.
"The intent when we opened El Dorado was to give kids a safe and legal place to go to skate," Donelon says. "That was the purpose of it."
Soon, he saw a greater purpose. "Within a year we saw so many at-risk youth coming to El Dorado from the inner city that it didn't take long to see the benefit of skate parks in the inner city."
The Michael K. Green park (named for a talented skater there who was killed in gang crossfire in 2005) was the first, and, Donelon says, within three years violent crime and drug-related crime dropped considerably.
"We realized kids were jumping into skate parks, not gangs (Green was not affiliated with any gangs) and they were picking up skateboards, not guns."
The few cities that do offer skate parks generally consider their work finished when construction is complete, but Donelon began seeing the skate parks as just the beginning of their value to youth.
He started the ASK (Action Kids Sports) Foundation "and we took the kids in the skate parks and got them involved in the community.
"Yes, it's still a skate park, but what ASK does is we gather the kids and get them involved in different events: park cleanups, working with autistic children, doing various outreach programs with the Long Beach Unified School District. The base of kids that we work with now, those who we can get together through social media and word-of-mouth is around 200 to 300 kids. And 90 percent of them are in higher-crime areas."
Donelon and his skater volunteers find work with Autism Long Beach especially rewarding.
"Autistic children get a rush out of high-energy stuff, so skateboarding and BMX is really attractive to them," Donelon says. "We partnered with Autism Long Beach and we put on skate events where the kids can watch, then we put them on skateboards and push them around and get them involved in the mix and they have a blast. And it's good for our kids, too, to interact with children who are less fortunate than they are. It's not all about income; it's about a lot of other things, too."
ASK doesn't make Donelon any money. He's paid in gratitude that will cause his eyes to tear up.
"It's pretty hard to describe the feedback you get from these kids," he says. "Some of them don't have functioning families and what I do and a lot of our guys do is bring them in and make them a part of what you do. You give them self-esteem and opportunities they would never have in their life.
"One of the things I've learned is the disconnect between the haves and the have-nots. These kids are just as wonderful, just as smart as any other kid, it's just that they're low-income and they're at-risk. They've all got hearts of gold and any time you give them an opportunity to give something back to the community and do something for someone less fortunate than they are, they do it, and they really, really appreciate the opportunity to do it."