Matt Driscoll

Tacoma’s ‘life-changing’ skateboarding program in danger of shutting down

Alchemy Skateboarding nearing its sixth year of helping young people

Director Taylor Woodruff and Alchemy Skateboarding have managed to survive for nearly six years offering programming for youth in downtown Tacoma.
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Director Taylor Woodruff and Alchemy Skateboarding have managed to survive for nearly six years offering programming for youth in downtown Tacoma.

Sitting on a cold sofa in a skateboard shop filled with decks, trucks and wheels on a recent Tuesday morning, Taylor Woodruff sipped his coffee and compared the situation to being trapped on a mountain top.

“You’ve got extremities that are no longer necessary, so you chop down,” the executive director of the nonprofit Alchemy Skateboarding said with a laugh, his chuckle only slightly softening the blunt imagery of the gruesome analogy.

“Eventually, there’s nothing left to cut.”

The conversation was not intended to be this dark. Approaching the nonprofit’s sixth year of operation in Tacoma, the focus was supposed to center on all the valuable programs and opportunities Alchemy has developed to serve local youth over the years.

Specifically, Woodruff and I met before the half pipe in the next room filled up with the noise of skidding boards and boisterous laughter to talk about Alchemy’s pioneering role in supporting a local skateboarding community. Historically, that community has too often been viewed in a negative light rather than the positive one it can be.

The examples of this work, which was originally the result of the Tacoma Spaceworks program, aren’t hard to find, and many of them have been highlighted before, including by former News Tribune arts reporter Rosemary Ponnekanti.

At the same time, what has been less acknowledged — at least until recently — is what it takes to make Alchemy’s work possible, and how difficult it can be for even for the scrappiest of nonprofits to secure funding.

“I feel 100 percent confident that this is something that’s sustainable,” Woodruff said of Alchemy. “Whether or not we can realize it in time, I don’t know.

“I tell people we have a short runway, and we have a really thin margin of error.”

Looking at everything Alchemy strives to do, it’s not hard to see why keeping the doors open can be a struggle.

Open seven days and roughly 70 hours a week — with one full-time employee, Woodruff plus an assistant who logs 10 hours a week — Alchemy offers skateboarding classes to high schoolers through Tacoma School of the Arts and the Science and Math Institute.

It also partners with Pierce County Juvenile Court to provide positive youth development for kids in the juvenile justice system, while serving as an open, welcoming space for youth experiencing homelessness. Anyone under 24 years old who’s homeless or receiving government assistance of some kind is eligible to use Alchemy’s indoor skate park for free.

In the simplest sense, Alchemy stands as a place to go, particularly in the rain, offering a needed community for young skateboarders who often struggle to find one.

All of this takes time and money.

According to Woodruff, it costs between $12,000 and $15,000 a month, and pulling together that money has never been easy. He described it as “a heavy lift.”

Lately, the challenge has become even more pressing. Alchemy relies on grants and funding from local foundations for a third of its budget, a source that can be fickle and unpredictable. Ask Tacoma’s First Night celebration about this unfortunate reality.

Alchemy contracts with Tacoma Public Schools and the county provide another third of its operating budget, while the nonprofit runs a retail skate shop — Grit City Grindhouse — to fill in the difference.

Recently, Woodruff launched a fundraising effort in hopes of inspiring small, local donors. The response has been solid — more than $5,000 has been raised — but the goal is $35,000.

“Right now, we’re scrapping every month to get our stuff covered,” Woodruff said. “I don’t like to fear monger and tell people if we don’t get donations we’re closing, but that is a real threat.”

As Woodruff alluded to in his mountain-top comparison, difficulty scraping together funds has real-life consequences. For instance, Alchemy had to cancel its winter skateboarding camp this year because it didn’t pencil out.

It was a difficult but necessary decision, Woodruff said.

He also hopes it isn’t a harbinger of things to come.

As the nonprofit explains on its website, Alchemy takes its name from “taking something ordinary and turning into something extraordinary.” It’s a practice skateboarders have been employing for years — finding value in abandoned garages or sidewalk curbs — and one Alchemy strives to replicate in the lives of young people.

Terrance Johnson, a 26-year-old who moved to Tacoma from South Carolina two years ago, is a good example of precisely the kind of difference Alchemy can make.

Johnson recalls Googling “skate shops” shortly after his arrival in town and riding his bike to Alchemy’s location on South Seventh Street in Tacoma’s St. Helens neighborhood.

He found a place to buy equipment, to skate, and — eventually — a community he was desperate for.

“Once I started coming around more and more, I started getting super home sick, and they just took me in,” Johnson said. “It kind of went from me not knowing anyone to just falling into this huge dedicated family.”

Johnson said that Alchemy didn’t just provide a place to hang out, it provided direction for him, calling the experience “100-percent life-changing.”

“Alchemy has taught me that you can take a stand for whatever you want, as long as you believe in it, and you can also do good and be OK with failure sometimes,” he said. “Skateboarding gives you a family, no matter what. But this gives you a positive family, and a positive foot toward change in your life.

“If you really want to change your life, Alchemy will help you.”