A skate-park dream became reality

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CROW AGENCY, Mont. - It seemed a little out of place: a group of hip skaters performing tricks in a small skate park 50 feet behind hundreds of traditional Crows preparing for the start of the 89th annual Crow Fair Parade. These young Crow boys didn't seem interested in the gathering of horses and floats; after all, it's only been a month since Josh Laforge and the other skate kids who live on Crow Agency have been able to enjoy their new skate park.

Before its construction, the only places to skate on Crow were parking lots and steps of area businesses. As a result, much of their days were spent being chased from one place to another by tribal police. ''Our favorite spot was the staircase of the BIA office,'' Laforge said. ''They had some good rails, but man, the cops would always come by and make us move.''

Two years ago, these teenagers had had enough. They circulated a petition signed by Crow residents asking the tribe to build a skate park on the reservation. Laforge and 20 of his friends went to the office of tribal Chairman Carl Venne and waited four hours to hand-deliver their petition and to ask for help.

These young men were not alone in their battle: they had a strong ally by the name of Ben Jefferson, a former heavy equipment operator who at 63 can still be found in the early morning hours walking and cycling around the back roads of Crow Agency. Jefferson believed the kids needed a place where they could be safe, so he became part of a committee that approved a plan to not only build a skate park, but also a swimming pool, baseball field, football field and basketball courts.

Jefferson knows firsthand the importance sports play in keeping youth away from drugs and alcohol. As a high school student, he was a champion cross country runner. With a smile on his face, he spoke of the freedom he had as he ran across the fields of Crow almost 50 years ago.

''Once school and running was over, alcohol took over my life; it wasn't until I met my wife that my life changed and I stopped drinking,'' Jefferson said.

Today he is back to exercising each day, returning to the hills and roads he ran as a teen.

With the skate park construction plan under way, Vanne offered Jefferson a position in the project. ''I was not interested in a desk job,'' Jefferson said. ''I told him I wanted to work with the kids.'' So he was offered him the position of director of Tribal Youth Planning.

Jefferson is not just interested in the planning of the project and its different phases, but also in the youth that this project will affect. Each day Jefferson can be found at the skate park and the adjacent basketball courts talking with the youth. He also picks up trash some of the kids leave around the courts - not the job some would expect the director to be doing. ''If we show them we care, they will also care,'' Jefferson said.

Jefferson was reluctant to take responsibility for the creation of the skate park. ''It wasn't just me, but many of the people in the community who believe in helping the kids,'' he said. This may be true, but to Laforge and the Crow Agency skaters, Jefferson is their champion - the man who believed in their dream and helped it become a reality.