RJ’s inspiration, and local support, transform a skate park

Vashon Park District and the nonprofit, RJ’s Kids, are now welcoming islanders to a transformed Burton Area Recreation Center.

Content advisory: This article contains references to youth suicides and grief. Help is available 24 hours a day by calling or chatting 988, a suicide and crisis lifeline, if you are struggling with these topics. Find out more at 988lifeline.org.

Vashon Park District (VPD) and the nonprofit, RJ’s Kids, are now welcoming islanders to a transformed Burton Area Recreation Center (BARC) — made largely possible by the vision and grit of islander Judith Neary, who six years ago set out to honor her son’s memory by creating a more vibrant skatepark on Vashon.

In recent months, an array of new park features have been completed, including an expansive undulating concrete feature, called a “pump track,” walkways and skate ramps in the field outside the BARC building, as well as a checkerboard and ping-pong table, benches, a bouldering rock, and additional landscaping.

Last Saturday, a group of exuberant skaters gathered at BARC, defying gravity on the slopes of the new ramps, but taking time to proudly pose for a photo.

Asked about the new features at the park, one of the teenagers smiled and simply said, “We’re so lucky.”

Although the park took six years to complete, Neary said in an interview that Vashon’s need for a youth community center is what fueled the project — and that started becoming alarmingly apparent around 10-15 years ago.

“Vashon is a very unique place to live,” she said. “It’s sometimes not a great place to live for young people. There was a period of time here about 10-15 years ago when a lot of young people chose to leave.”

Neary was referring to the spike in youth suicides on the island from the early 2000s to 2014. These deaths had an immeasurable effect on islanders, especially youth, due in part to the island’s tight-knit social network.

And in 2014, Neary’s beloved son RJ ​​Ontiveros — an adventurous, artistic and deeply community-minded person — also died by suicide at the age of 25.

Neary quotes one of her son’s deepest beliefs on the website for RJ’s Kids: “I believe, if we have the ability to help someone in any way small or large, then it is our responsibility to do so,” he said.

Neary, in describing her son, recalled how he had been a mentor and companion to many young people on the island.

“He always had a group of kids in tow, because they didn’t have any place to go and be safe, hang out, and play games together as a group,” she said.

In 2015, Neary and her husband, Ramon Ontiveros, founded RJ’s Kids, first hosting a number of community forums asking youth what support they needed.

The most common response, according to Neary: “We need a community center.”

One of RJ’s lifelong friends came to her with the idea of updating BARC — a place RJ and his friends had skated and gathered. Soon after, she approached VPD and the Vashon Island School District boards in 2017, and RJ’s Kids started on what would be a six-year journey to renovate BARC.

Out of the $820,000 total cost of the BARC updates, an impressive 65% of this project was funded by sweat equity labor and community-connected donations of money and materials.

Neary said that BARC was built on “sheer volunteer labor.”

Bryan Ripka, the Lead Advocate for the project, engaged and connected the Vashon community as a prominent volunteer.

“Being a skateboarder for 35 years and father of three school-age children, this project was something I was thrilled about and determined to contribute towards,” Ripka said, “The fact that the support never dwindled and only grew over the years showed just how meaningful this resource is to Vashon.”

Volunteers such as Ripka were integral to BARC.

“[The volunteers] understand the bigger mission to create this environment for young adults, and for everybody,” Neary said. “The businesses, contractors, and volunteers who have stepped up to help have been truly amazing.”

One young boy even came to Neary and donated the amount in his allowance jar he had been saving up for two years.

“It has been profoundly humbling to see who has donated,” Neary said.

The organization, with assistance from VPD, received two important grants through the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office to help fund the BARC project. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and permitting delays, the two grants were combined and required a 25 percent community match, instead of 50 percent.

The amount of money awarded by the state, after meeting the match requirement of $117,035, was $231,484.

The work at BARC was broken up into four phases.

“It kept exploding with a bigger vision,” Neary said.

The park now includes its original skate bowl, added in 2014, a pump track, a widely popular ping pong table, a bouldering rock, game tables, benches, cornhole, and various art installations along the walkway.

BARC’s pump track, designed and constructed by Seattle-based company Gridline Skateparks Inc., is the first concrete pump track in the entire state. According to Neary, it is already attracting attention and visitors from off-island.

“The amount of activity at the park is profound,” Neary said.

Neary has talked to people who have come to the park from Oregon, Idaho, and Vancouver. She says the skating community has gotten the word out about the park, and it is attracting tourism.

VPD is also currently running its popular series of summer skating camps at BARC, for ages 6-10. The camps are four days per week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., during which time the skate park is closed to the public.

But Neary said that work on the park will continue.

“We are not done,” she said.

RJ’s Kids wants to add shades for the picnic benches and game tables, an additional ping-pong table, and four basalt slabs for the benches. The nonprofit is currently raising money for these items, with a $36,950 goal, on its GoFundMe platform.

Elaine Ott-Rocheford, the executive director of VPD, lauded the work of Neary and RJ’s Kids, saying the organization had created something remarkable on Vashon.

“The Park District is so grateful to Judith Neary, Jeremy Uttech, Bryan Ripka, Ramon Ontiveros, Marco Gaul, and all the other numerous volunteers and financial contributors who made this project happen,” she said, “Their passion and commitment to this tremendous gift to the community is deeply appreciated by VPD staff and commissioners.”

Ott-Rocheford is currently waiting to hear back about a grant that would allow VPD to update the indoor skate park at BARC, which is the old Burton School’s outdoor gym. It is the only building left of the school, which was demolished in 2003.

The completion of phase 4 of the BARC renovations is an achievement filled with emotion for Neary.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, and for the worst reason,” Neary said.

VPD and RJ’s Kids will host a grand opening celebration for BARC in September. The date is yet to be determined, but more details will be made available through VPD’s website. Find out more about RJ’s Kids here.