It all started with a sneaker: the Concepts x Nike SB Dunk High Pro “Turdunken.”
To the average eye, the Thanksgiving-themed shoes might just look like another pair of kicks.
But one day in late November, when the streets of downtown San Mateo were still and quiet, sneaker enthusiasts flocked to Atlas Skateboard Shop in droves for a chance to own the limited edition pair.
Except this time, they didn’t come empty-handed. Collectively, the skate shop’s clientele brought more than 1,000 pounds of food donations for people experiencing food insecurity.
“The world is really hurting right now. There’s the COVID factor. There’s the social injustice factor,” said co-owner Ryen Motzek. “If there’s ever a time to give back, right now’s the time.”
When the pandemic caused food insecurity to skyrocket all over the Bay Area, Motzek decided to leverage the skate shop’s popular sneaker releases for good by coinciding them with donation drives. Atlas has since donated well over $100,000 worth of cash, food, clothing, skateboards and toys to local nonprofits.
It’s a testament to the approach that Motzek and his two co-founders have taken to building the skate shop since it opened 14 years ago. The mission was always about more than just selling skateboards or sneakers.
“We started Atlas as a community hub and inclusive space for Bay Area skateboarding,” Motzek said. “We’ve always been there to support the community and support those in need — it’s the reason why we’re here.”
After the killing of George Floyd, the shop partnered with local designers to release a capsule collection of T-shirts and skateboard decks dedicated toward fighting social injustice. Merchandise was emblazoned with messages like “End racism,” “Know justice, know peace,” “Anti-violence, anti-silence,” and all net proceeds were donated to Black Lives Matter and other Bay Area nonprofits.
For children facing financial hardship, this year’s social distancing guidelines and intense economic downturn were the perfect storm for a stolen Christmas. So, Atlas hosted a toy donation drive — and received enough support to fill a 20-foot U-Haul truck with brand-new toys.
The shop and its supporters gifted toy cars, bikes, dolls, board games, Nerf guns and much more to hundreds of underprivileged youth in San Francisco (Santa and the Grinch also made a surprise appearance at the toy distribution event, to the delight of many kids).
“It was so important for the morale of so many kids that might not be able to get the Christmas that they deserved due to COVID or other financial hardships,” Motzek said. “People were flocking to the store just to give — they didn’t even have to tie it with a shoe drop.”
The shop is also making a difference in its hometown of San Mateo, which hasn’t been immune to the surge in food insecurity.
Ann and Jack Olson, volunteers at St. Vincent De Paul’s St. Matthew Conference food pantry, have seen that increase in need firsthand. The mother-and-son duo regularly deliver bags of groceries, frozen foods and gift cards to individuals and families in need all over the city.
In normal times, the food pantry serves an average of 87 families per month. That number grew to 140 during the pandemic, representing a 61% increase in households requesting food assistance.
The need for food was so great that the food pantry’s staff began growing concerned about supply.
“Our shelves were getting really barren, and the food bags were kind of sparse,” Ann Olson said. “And that’s where Atlas came in.”
Like Motzek, the Olsons were expecting one or two boxes when they first came to pick up donations. “But it was like 15 boxes,” Ann Olson said. “And it happened again and again.”
The skate shop’s semiregular donations replenished the food pantry’s dwindling supply and enabled its staff to give more groceries to those in need, even as demand remains higher than ever.
The faces of food insecurity are often invisible, especially during these times of social distancing. There’s the single mother with cancer struggling to support herself and her son, a man with a new kidney transplant living in a cramped apartment, large families with many young and hungry mouths to feed.
During this time of unprecedented need, Ann Olson believes that it’s more important than ever for other businesses to follow Atlas’ example and help community members who are struggling in silence.
“[Atlas] isn’t changing their whole business model to support us. It is more effort for them, but it’s doable,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be great if more companies or small businesses did that?”
The skate shop isn’t showing any signs of stopping any time soon. Atlas donates food weekly to San Francisco-based nonprofit The City Eats, which aims to feed homeless individuals and others facing food insecurity in the Bay Area.
Kieem Baker, founder and CEO of The City Eats, said each weekly pickup amounts to 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of food. Baker distributes the donations to various nonprofits in the Bay Area, Philippines and Africa, and also personally delivers food to families in need.
“[The donations] continued happening every week. It’s the love from the skate community,” Baker said. “That community is growing, and they always come through.”
To Motzek, it comes as no surprise that the skateboarding community is so eager to come together to help those in need.
Unlike other organized sports or activities that require considerable parental or financial support, Motzek said, there aren’t many boundaries to skateboarding. It doesn’t matter what type of shoes you’re wearing or the type of deck you have — once your wheels hit the pavement, it’s entirely what you make of it.
That’s naturally resulted in a diverse and inclusive community that exists far beyond the boundaries of a court or field.
“I think of skateboarding as kind of this neutralizer. It doesn’t matter if you come from a high-income household or what color your skin is,” Motzek said. “It’s a place where everyone can come together, and that’s needed now more than ever.”