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A former social worker follows his bliss and opens up an indoor skate park

Hugo Phan

After spending nearly 20 years in a variety of social work and counseling jobs, Jason McKenney knew it was time to...shred it up.

Jason McKenney likes to compare his newfound career change to a recent animated release from a renowned studio.

“If you've seen the Pixar movie ‘Soul,’ I feel as though I was one of those people in the Valley of Lost Souls,” said McKenney, who has a master’s degree in social work from Wichita State University. “Not dead, but just …”

McKenney, who’s in his mid-40s, said he tended to change jobs every two to three years anyway, often switching to an entirely different business.

“The thought of learning a whole new industry or a whole new side of the industry, a whole new process, a whole new company … it was defeating,” McKenney said. “I think, ‘Oh my God, I'm going to have to do this for another, at least 20 years.’”

And then he remembered something he did as a teenager that made him happy: skateboarding.

“And I started really looking inside myself and trying to come up with: … If I'm going to do something, what do I want to do all day every day?” McKenney said. “And it came down to skate. I mean, it was so childish that it was just such a giddy revelation.

“I'm like, ‘All right.”

McKenney is now the owner of The Board Awakens, an indoor skatepark and outfitter in Andover. He said he took the severance pay from his last job that ended because of the pandemic and put together a 40-page business plan.

His business, which had its grand opening last weekend, offers a 2,000-square foot indoor skateboarding park, including mini ramps and a street course. He also sells skateboard equipment and accessories.

Hugo Phan

The name is a play on the Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens (yes, McKenney’s a big fan of the sci-fi franchise, especially the expanded legends universe). And, although he said he’s not overly spiritual, he does feel a sense of destiny.

“I feel like this thing right here, the more that I get into it, the more that I see this community coming together and finding my people, that I think it's a supposed-to-have-happened kind of thing,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges for McKenney as he pursued this project was getting back on a skateboard again. A former defensive lineman at Kapaun Mount Carmel High School, he hadn’t skated in decades. Or done much of anything else in the way of traditional exercise, he said.

So he spent a lot of time trying to regain his form.

“I start going out to the skate parks early in the morning by myself so it's not too embarrassing,” he said. “I only have to worry about the guys driving down (I-135) .. when I'm out at Park City.”

Hugo Phan

But McKenney thinks the struggle is part of what makes skateboarding great. As he wrote on his LinkedIn account, “The skateboard is a perfect tool for internalizing hard work, determination and overcoming fear. For those that find the passion to continue progressing their skills, the skateboard becomes a tool of self-discovery.”

McKenney’s self-discovery didn’t come without a number of falls – “It's good for you, a little pain, a little suffering” – but his form slowly started to return. And he noticed a change.

“And I think honestly, as that happened and my body started moving and my brain started firing again, I've lost 75 pounds or something in the last year,” he said.

“I feel like my hair's coming back thicker,” he said, laughing, “and I know I'm definitely in a much better mood most of the time.”

His advice for others thinking of pursuing a long-lost passion? “Pull the trigger (but) do your research,” McKenney said. “There’s something for doing it, but not haphazardly.”

And then pursue that dream relentlessly.

“It really did become a mission to capture that and get it back,” McKenney said.

“When I'm out skating by myself, listening to music, it's … I woke up, I just woke up and realized … I have to start doing the things to make me happy.”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is a board member of the Public Media Journalists Association, serving as small station representative, a volunteer coach for League 42 and an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.