By Published: June 21, 2022

Alumnus is working with nonprofit to help kids across the globe achieve academic goals through skateboarding

For Rory Burke (IntlAf), sports are about much more than just stats and scores.

“Sports can have a really big impact in youth development on many levels, and in certain communities, sports can give children access to opportunities not normally offered and often through a medium that’s approachable for children,” says Burke, who played lacrosse for CU Boulder before graduating in the early 2000s.

“Personally, for me, sports provided new opportunities that I don’t think I would’ve ever experienced and explored without them. I was not only able to travel the country while playing lacrosse at CU, but also globally afterward (as a coach), which was quite mind opening to how big a factor of change sports can be.”

Rory Burke is pictured at Band-e-Amir national park in Bamyan, Afghanistan.

At the top of the page: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl), a documentary won an Academy Award in 2019, highlights the impact Skateistan is making on children in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy A+E Networks). Above: Rory Burke (pictured at Band-e-Amir national park in Bamyan, Afghanistan) and Skateistan’s work focus on youth development in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa.

After coaching, Burke learned about a nonprofit in 2012 called Skateistan, which offers skateboarding and education programs for about 3,000 youth between 5 and 17 years old in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa. Skateistan focuses on groups who are often excluded from sports and educational opportunities, giving them safe spaces to have fun, build confidence, break down social barriers and access educational resources.

Burke immediately liked what he saw and began volunteering in Cambodia. Today he’s Skateistan’s projects and operations director based in Cape Town, South Africa, where he supports all of the organization’s programming which, he says, prepares kids for adulthood.

“Skateboarding is pretty unique in a way that it literally teaches you that you will fall, and most likely fall down a lot, and you will need to get back up,” Burke says. “It’s also an individual sport in a way that allows for creativity and for each student to sort of make it on their own. It’s just a really interesting way to engage children and allow them to experiment and learn through play.” 

And on the academic side, Burke says Skateistan offers education programs that focus on creative learning and learning through play.

“In Afghanistan, we offer more formal programming through our back-to-school program, which is an accelerated learning program for children supported and approved by the ministry of education. It’s aimed at getting children who’ve been displaced by conflict or are engaged in street working and equips them with the skills and educational level to either get back into school or potentially join school for the first time.”

In 2019, a documentary about Skateistan, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl), won an Academy Award. The film highlights the impact Skateistan is making in communities. 

“Quite often as a sport-for-development organization, people see just the sport part and think of the programs as simply skateboarding with kids, which is the opposite of the day-to-day operations,” Burke says. “The film wonderfully highlights the educational aspect our work, especially our back-to-school program in Afghanistan.”

Burke adds that the most gratifying part of his job has been working with Skateistan’s teams.

It’s been amazing watching them deliver opportunities to the children in our programs. We work really hard to support the communities as best as possible.” 

“It’s been amazing watching them deliver opportunities to the children in our programs. We work really hard to support the communities as best as possible, so most of our staff are from the communities where we work, so the programming and support comes driven from the community. It’s great to see how things are contextualized and adapted locally and making an impact.” 

As for the future, Burke says he’s optimistic that Skateistan will continue to grow. He explains Skateistan has created The Goodpush Alliance, a global platform that shares knowledge with social skateboarding projects worldwide to broaden their impact. 

“We’re also looking at lighter models for program delivery as our skate schools are quite comprehensive, but they can also be expensive to build and operate,” he says. “Longer term, I hope to see Skateistan grow in a variety of ways, providing more educational access to children in different areas, and to see Skateistan alums make an impact in their local communities.”