Heidi Lemmon was warned not to go to Nepal. It was 2005 and the country's political instability had prompted the U.S. government to issue a travel advisory.
But Lemmon, executive director of SkatePark Association International, was on a mission. Nepalese skateboarder Ram Koirala had worked hard to establish a skate park in Pokhara, Nepal, and had made significant progress. Then, in 2005, Nepalese bureaucrats stymied his plans. He sought help from Lemmon.
Lemmon, with skate park builder Stephanie Mohler of Airspeed Skateparks, hopped a plane to Nepal, where she attended meetings with Koirala and government officials to move the park plan forward. “Sometimes when you come from far away, people are a little more cooperative,” she says.
Soon after she returned to Venice, Nepal's King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency and suspended civil liberties.
Lemmon is equally committed to local teenagers who want skate parks, for reasons that reach far beyond providing the kids with something to do.
A former product designer with clients such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Lemmon got involved after her son and his friends were harassed by police for skateboarding on public property in Santa Monica. When city officials ignored their calls, she and the skateboarders decided an official-sounding name might get respect.
“It was me and a bunch of 11- and 12- year-olds,” Lemmon says. They decided on Skatepark Association of United States of America, later changed to “international.” The gambit worked. Lemmon still laughs about how she and “a bunch of kids” outwitted the city.
Since then, she's worked with youths on more than 1,000 park projects.
Bubbly, warm and encouraging when she interacts with kids and teen, she's an assured executive when operating in her unassuming office on the Westside. It's that side of her that lobbies politicians and government leaders, arranges park insurance, develops construction standards, links up city officials with qualified builders — and teaches middle-schoolers how to run advocacy campaigns.
She was profiled by The Wall Street Journal, hosted a British resident who'd won a grant to study with her, and helped install the first skate park on school property in L.A., at Berendo Middle School.
Yet to some in her family, Lemmon is the one with the desk job. Her brothers — guitarist Whitey Kirst and the late Alex Kirst, a drummer — toured with Iggy Pop.
She was galvanized to brave the threatened Nepalese military coup, not to mention tedious insurance paperwork, because she believes these parks can be vehicles for social change.
She's seen kids in horrifying parental circumstances or living in gang-plagued communities, who get involved in the sport and develop a sense of community, trust and individual value.
“Nobody was stepping up to help these kids,” she says of the early years. That's changed: Today, many parents and corporate sponsors embrace skate parks. But when kids run into obstacles, locally or globally, Lemmon is the one they contact, the adult of last resort.