From Skateboards to Community: The Birth of Samkele Park

Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s most spectacular sites. As the world’s largest waterfall, it boasts an incredible 5,000 feet wide curtain of thunderous falling water. As one of the seven natural wonders of the world, it welcomes roughly one million tourists a year.

Nestled alongside the falls is the bustling town of Victoria Falls. Brimming with an abundance of hotels, safari lodges, shopping malls and restaurants, it’s clear that catering to these tourists is its number one industry. For the locals though, there is little in the town to call their own.

Until now.

Enter Robby Kimmel. A recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in business and finance, Robby went to Victoria Falls in 2023 as part of an internship with MATTER. With his outgoing personality and electric smile, Robby got to know the locals quickly. An avid skateboarder, he brought twenty boards with him, hoping to use skateboarding as a way to connect with the youth and grow from skateboards to community. His strategy worked better than he ever could have imagined. Before long, his new friends were inviting him to the areas where they lived. Areas that were far from the center of the tourist town.

“I started skating in the township areas where most of the local people live. Right away, I heard people calling me, ‘Kiwa! Kiwa!’ which means ‘white person.’ I thought this was kind of ironic. Victoria Falls is a tourist town, but in these areas where the tourists seldom go, it seems racially divided.”

That’s not the only thing Robby noticed. “This town gets such a large influx of capital, but I saw nothing really was going back to the people who live there. There’s no public playground, no public community center. Kids are playing in the streets with nothing to do. And because of it, there’s rising drug addiction and alcoholism. I wanted to change that.”

Thus the vision for building a community center was born. Working with community leaders and MATTER partners and donors, Robby is taking on the challenge of bringing his vision to life. He chose the name “Samkele Park”, because “samekele” means “welcome” in Ndebele, one of the two main languages spoken by the locals. It’s the perfect name for a public facility that will provide a central, safe space for all. Its purpose will be to encourage integration of the communities of Victoria Falls though shared experience and activity.

Proposed plans for Samkele Park in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

When completed, Samkele Park will boast numerous recreational and fitness areas, including, of course, Zimbabwe’s first skateboarding park. The indoor facility will be dedicated to health and wellness classes, counseling rooms, family development activities and entertainment events. All designed to bring the residents of Victoria Falls together and demonstrate that Victoria Falls can be a place for community first, not just tourism first.

For those who know Robby, it’s no surprise he’s dedicating himself to helping others. You could almost say it runs in his blood. His late grandfather, George Welsh, co-founded the successful commercial real estate company, Welsh Companies, (now Welsh Construction) in 1977 with Dennis Doyle. (25 years later, Dennis and his wife, Megan, founded MATTER.) As a way to honor George’s legacy, his family established the Welsh Family Foundation in 2015 to help support numerous nonprofits, including MATTER. Additionally, Robby’s grandmother, Donna Welsh, has provided thousands of indestructible soccer balls to kids living in under-resourced countries.

Robby and Ann Kimmel with friends in Victoria Falls.

Wanting to ensure their son understood the importance of giving back, Robby’s parents, Ann and Bob, encouraged him to volunteer at MATTER beginning at age 14. A typical teenager at the time, Robby was hardly excited to spend his free time indoors sorting medical supplies, but he grew to appreciate the work and enjoyed spending time with MATTER staff and other volunteers. Bob and Ann also provided Robby numerous opportunities to travel and experience different cultures, including taking Insight Trips to Haiti and Senegal.

Those experiences and the example set by his grandparents helped create in Robby a passion for helping others. At only 22, he’s already working to establish his own nonprofit and sees Samkele Park as the first of many community center projects throughout Africa.

“This trip has definitely changed the trajectory of my life. I thought I was going to go to Zimbabwe for four months to volunteer, and then probably go work with my dad in insurance or something. But this is so much more fulfilling than just sitting behind a desk, looking at spreadsheets. I had the calling to do this, decided to do it and It’s one of the best decisions of my life. And there’s no turning back now!”

If you’d like to help Robby’s vision come to life to improve the communities in Victoria Falls, please go here to learn more. On behalf of Robby and the kids in Victoria Falls, thank you for your support!

See Robby in action with the growing skateboarding community in Victoria Falls and hear more about Samkele Park!