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‘What would Thuy do?’ San Francisco Skate Club rolls on after losing co-founder to cancer

Shawn Connolly holds a skate board he painted of his late wife Thuy Nguyen who died of cancer during the pandemic at their Skate Club, a youth arts program on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022 in San Francisco. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

It’s hard to overstate the sheer amount of love emanating from San Francisco Skate Club for Thuy Nguyen. 

The fallen co-founder’ face and name is sketched on several skateboard decks at the shop and 15-year-old clubhouse on Divisadero Street, including one outside with descriptors like “patience,” “compassion” and “self-determination.”

Paying tribute to her voice of consciousness is a blue sticker on the front counter that simply say WWTD for “What Would Thuy Do?”

Nguyen died of cancer at the end of November 2020. She was 41.

The loss of Nguyen—a longtime educator and mentor—came in the midst of the pandemic. It also came alongside separate health challenges for co-founder and Nguyen’s partner, Shawn Connolly, who earlier this year underwent brain surgery for Parkinson’s disease.  

“The challenges have stacked up,” said Katie Pilgrim, deputy director of the club’s tight-knit youth outreach and after-school program EduSkate. “Some would say it’s easier to throw in the towel. The other way of looking at it is seeing all the youth, community members and staff who are standing strong believing in this. It’s pure passion and love—it’s hard to find these days.”

Now, a new generation rose up to make Nguyen’s legacy one that lasts. 

For the first time since 2019, Skate Club is holding its signature art show fundraiser to sustain EduSkate. “Push it Forward 5” kicks off with a VIP preview on Friday, with a live performance from local musician Tim Cohen, and continues with the art auction and special film debut on Saturday, both at SOMArts. 

Katie Pilgrim and Skate Club co-founder Shawn Connolly, holds a skateboard painted by Rye Purvis she donated for an auction this weekend, for the first time since the pandemic and losing their co-founder Thuy Nguyen to cancer during the pandemic on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022 in San Francisco. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

The after-school program brings in tutoring help, art lessons and time to work on projects like zines, field trips and meme days. Skate Club charges tuition on a sliding scale, with some families paying nothing and others paying full price, depending on need.

Every Monday, the club hosts group discussions that many participants say are deeply personal and often therapeutic. 

“It really helped with my maturity,” said Jacob Fried, a 16-year-old who has come to EduSkate since 2017. “They’re just very supportive with whatever I do. It’s a very mixed bag, a very diverse group of people. We don’t share a lot in common.”

Sense of Belonging

Like many other kids involved with EduSkate, Ryan Miller was lured in by skateboarding and word of mouth. He said he experienced “serious trauma” when he was young and had transferred to a different school that made him feel alienated. 

EduSkate gave him a sense of belonging.

“I felt like for the first time, I was listened to,” the 20-year-old Fillmore resident said. “Thuy was something of a mother to me. It was also just the matter of her being an authoritative figure, being there to confront us about things when we’re slipping.”

Former five year Skate Club member Ryan Miller, 20, lands a treflip on his skate board near the Painted Ladies on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022 in San Francisco. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

Jesse Abrams is another EduSkate alum who was drawn in by the same things that appealed to Miller. Through friends, he wound up stopping in at San Francisco Skate Club on Divisadero Street, and saw a bunch of kids hanging out, making art and having a good time. That was some seven years ago.

Abrams—who typically went straight home after school as a seventh-grader in Western Addition—wanted to be part of it.

“I came to a safe space, I came to a place to hang out,” Abrams said. “The trajectory it put me on was to learn how to be creative and think outside the box to do what I like to do and have a passion for, and helped me make money.”

Now 21 years old, Abrams still returns regularly to Skate Club to volunteer with kids and sell vintage clothing and sneakers under the label Hyphy Soles—the name he’s also using as he veers into film production—all of which he credits Skate Club with shepherding him toward all those creative endeavors. His mother, Lorraine Luna, also now serves on the group’s board. 

At the art event, Abrams will debut a documentary of youth like him who came up through Skate Club and the lasting impact of Nguyen’s legacy. The short film features footage from Connolly of Nguyen skating, as well as musings from their fallen mentor.

“I never thought I would make a movie,” Abrams added. “This movie we’re making is a good way for people to understand who she was and how much of an impact Skate Club had.”

Connolly, for his part, remembers Nguyen once saying, “I’m not good at everything but I try”—an ethos he thinks  aligns with the tenacity it takes to be a skateboarder. 

Nguyen’s perseverance rubbed off on Connolly—as it did for so many of the youth, staff and volunteers she worked with. 

“She had so much energy and was so passionate and she was so smart in so many ways,” Connolly said. “I feel like I’m lucky to even just sop up a little bit of gravy from that, you know, and just run with that. 

“Her spirit, it’s definitely going to live on.”

VIP Preview Viewing & Early Bidding Party

Friday, Sept. 16, 5 – 8p.m. | $100

SOMArts, 934 Brannan Street

“Push It Forward 5” EduSkate Fundraiser, Art Auction & Film Debut

Saturday, Sept. 17, 2 – 6 p.m. | $5 suggested donation   

SOMArts, 934 Brannan Street