SMiLe: The Ben Raemers Foundation

In May of 2019, at the age of 29, professional skateboarder Ben Raemers took his life. He is remembered as a loving son, brother, friend and inspiration. 

The Ben Raemers Foundation aims to break the stigma and burden that so often clouds issues of mental health by bringing awareness to the forefront within the wider skateboarding community. On the second anniversary of Ben’s passing and subsequent forming of the foundation, I had a quick chat with co-founder Rob Mathieson—a close friend of Ben’s, an accomplished artist, and mean switch 360 flipper in his own right.

Who are some of the people involved in The Ben Raemers Foundation, and how did it get started?

There are four trustees: myself; Lucy Raemers, who’s Ben’s sister; Ben’s cousin Francesca Bortoli; and then my friend Susie Crome who was working in public health already. How it got started was when Ben passed away, Jack Brooks did a Gofundme to get a bench put in at Ben’s favourite skatepark, and also we’d been selling t-shirts to raise money to help with family and funeral costs. We ended up with a large amount of money from that—the Gofundme surpassed its target on the first day—and Ben’s family and all of us wanted to do something with it. It sounded very difficult, but my friend Susie who works in public health was like, this is possible. She took care of all the paperwork, got the charity number and was basically the brains behind it.

All that intimidating stuff that could otherwise put you off from doing it.

That’s exactly it. We had this money and wanted to start something, but none of us knew what that would look like. We’re not qualified, we’re not mental health professionals, so we had to work out what we could do, and Susie basically organised that. 

How has the foundation evolved over the two years since Ben’s passing? You started off with the bench, but where did it go from then?

Our aim was to spread awareness and signpost people in the direction of help or education. We had an idea to make films, which became SMiLe films. The idea is that if kids can see someone they look up to like a professional skateboarder talking about these issues, then hopefully they’ll feel more comfortable talking about it with their friends. Like: he felt like that and I feel like that, and this feels more normal now, so I can talk about it. We launched the first two films with mental health professionals in attendance. We showed the films in a cinema then had a Q and A session afterwards. We were worried that we should prepare our own questions, like what if no one opens it up and we just sit in silence? But all the kids opened up and it ended up running overtime. It was really, really special.

That shows that it’s something that’s been needed desperately.

I think so. People were definitely ready to talk. Another thing we’re doing is training. It was obviously motivated by losing Ben and possibly not seeing signs—which I now know having done the training that I did miss signs, which is really sad. There were issues raised in the films around people not really knowing how to deal with other people when they’re going through things. If we can give people in skate shops and people working in the industry some training, then maybe a team manager can spot someone’s not doing too good while they’re on a trip. They can give them their own room or take them to one side and see if they’re okay. Likewise, in a skate shop; they’re hubs of the community. I worked in a skate shop and all the kids in London would come through every weekend and hang out. If the people working in shops can spot little signs and possibly help point in the direction of help, it makes everyone a bit safer. It also removes the stigma, that’s what we keep saying. Don’t be ashamed to feel bad—it’s okay.

It strikes me that skateboarders have this intimate relationship with media, like videos. We engage with that stuff in a really intense way, so to use that medium to talk about mental health is really powerful.

I think skateboarding is a really social activity. Most people who skateboard have lots of friends who skateboard, I mean, all of my friends skateboard because that’s what I’ve grown up doing. And when I was growing up, I didn’t talk about those things with my friends at all.

And it’s such an insular culture in some ways. I think it sort of comes from not being allowed to skate places; you have your own rules and infrastructure of support. So, to actually open up a conversation about looking after yourself emotionally and spotting those signs is huge.

I notice it outside of skateboarding as well. Society is really taking more note of stuff like this. I watch a lot of football and you see similar campaigns now, which you never saw before. I feel like Ben just missed when everyone started really talking about it. I don’t think he was the turning point, but it’s definitely gotten better since his passing.

So, it’s the two-year anniversary. What are you doing to commemorate it?

We’ve got the Converse shoe coming out, which is exciting. Due to COVID we couldn’t do anything last year, so we did Smile Day. Ben’s family wanted everybody to be super positive on the day, so on Instagram, we asked people to do something that made them smile, then post it and tag us, plus use the hashtag #smileforraemers and we reposted them. That’s running again this year, hopefully, people have fun with it. Personally, I painted the bowl at Victoria Park when Ben passed. So I’ve bought a load of paint and I’m going to touch it up. We’ve checked with the park and we’re allowed to go there tomorrow morning.

That’s the silhouette of Ben that’s become the icon of the foundation as well?

Yeah, I’d already drawn it out for an enjoi series, so I had the artwork. Then when Ben passed it was a case of feeling a little lost and wanting to do something. That was his favourite park, so we went and projected it on the cradle and painted it. They haven’t removed it, even though the man who worked there came past while we were painting it and told us it would be cleaned off after two weeks because it was graffiti. But they liked it, so it’s still there; now that man is really helpful, we have his email address and keep him updated on everything.

So, that’s Victoria Park skatepark?

It’s now known as Raemers skatepark. I think someone hacked or contributed to Google Maps and changed it on there. I’m not sure if it’s been changed officially, but it’s there if you look it up on Google.

 That’s not easy to do—very rad! So what links can we end on for anyone reading this? 

On our website there’s a support page with contact details for mental health support for all the countries we could find. Thanks!

If you think you might need a bit of support with your mental health Click here.

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