The Volunteer Spirit: An Interview with Léo Poulet

Leo Poulet (A.K.A. Lait au Poulet/Milk Chicken) lives an unorthodox existence. He is one-part globetrotter, one-part skater, one-part artist – his personal form of expression? Well, let’s just say if skatepark building is sculpture, then he is one of a small group of Michelangelos who travel the world making connections with underserved communities, to build safe spaces for young kids to empower and educate themselves every day, through skateboarding. Leo is deep, his stories told vividly, such that you can hardly believe you weren’t there yourself. And the videos, polaroids, even tattoos he's picked up along the way certainly help paint the picture. Anybody wondering what the life of an NGO skatepark-builder is really like, settle in. It’s gonna’ get juicy.

Skateboarder Shot by Ju Lafronde Skateboarder Shot by Ju Lafronde

Question one, do people really call you Milk Chicken?

My family name is Poulet which means chicken, and my first name is Leo – lait au – which means milk of. So that’s how it came about.

There’s an Indian dish called Milk Chicken. Are you a fan?

I’m a vegetarian.

Beautiful. So, Leo, how did you get into this volunteering lifestyle?

When I was growing up, I was a skateboarding teacher. I taught skating for five years. Everything was about skateboarding for me at the time. Then when I was travelling around in Asia, my friend Lisa Jacob called me. She said they were doing a project in Nepal and asked if I wanted to jump in. I was totally shocked, finding these, like, forty volunteers in the middle of nowhere, killing themselves to build this park in the mountains. It was the deepest connection I’d ever seen between humans, internationals and locals. It changed everything for me, I wanted to keep doing this. So after Nepal I jumped between projects for three years, going around the world, until at one point I didn’t know where I was anymore. It changed my life.

They do say that Nepal is a deeply spiritual place.

It is. You can feel the Buddhist vibes around, the connection to the land and to people. We build this park for a month, with forty volunteers. After that, I stayed three more months. I fell completely in love with the place and the people. I kept skating with the kids at this brand new skatepark, even after the volunteers had left, and it made me realise what the real impact is of this kind of project when the locals can enjoy it. I directly saw, in my first project, what this was all for. That’s why I kept going.

    skatepark buildingShot by Lisa Jacob

What did you see that showed you that impact?

You had the people who knew how to skate already showing up at 7 in the morning, skating the whole day, then going home after dark. Then you also had people who had never even heard about skateboarding, who would show up and have their mind blown. Some thought it was dangerous, some thought it was magical. Once they saw the smiles on the kids’ faces, they began to understand what this was all about.

So your journey started there, and you found yourself jumping from one project to another. You mentioned Lisa Jacob as a close friend who you volunteer with again and again, is it generally the same faces that pop-up wherever you go?

There is kind of a core team: less than 50 people in the whole world who keep showing up. But then at each project there are new faces, friends of people. Lisa and I are probably the two who jump between projects the most. We have very good connections with all the NGOs who run these things.

“Some thought it was dangerous, some thought it was magical. Once they saw the smiles on the kids’ faces, they began to understand what this was all about.”

But yeah, it’s always nice to have a good team who are used to how things work, especially in countries which aren’t easy to travel to. But it always depends, Morocco is totally different to Afghanistan, Nepal to Hungary. You respect the customs, cultures, and political reality. When we were in Syria, we had to have the military around, you had to really look out for yourself. It’s hard to say what the vibe will be like. But it’s always amazing, everyone shares the same goal – to put smiles on kids’ faces. It’s way too beautiful for it to ever feel wrong.

You recently went to Mongu in Zambia, what were the vibes there?

This is beautiful too. A little more for me than just jumping on a project. The main guy of Wonders Around the World, Josh, we unfortunately couldn’t come out at the last minute. So Lisa and I got the news, and realized we’d have to run the whole project in Mongu. That meant running around sourcing machines, sorting out houses, all with the support of Jonnie K. of WeSkateMongu. It was the first time we had the pressure of managing a project from beginning to end. It was crazy, in a good way.

Plus, right in the middle of the COVID-19, right?

Yeah, COVID didn’t make things easy. We had to be careful because there were 25 of us volunteering. Actually, somebody caught COVID at one point. He got it bad. We had to stop the build right in the middle, and make arrangements so we could safely continue and not risk infecting anybody else. We made it work, but we got lucky that nobody else in our team got sick.

What were your first impressions of Zambia when you arrived?

It was crazy. We got out of the plane, headed to the hotel with the Skate World Better crew, and at the hotel there was a pool. A drained pool, where you could actually skate. It was weird to find this in Zambia, you wouldn’t even see this in Europe. It made me think: ‘Wow, they already have a bowl then.’ The kids had never seen people skate bowl, so now after we were there I’m sure they’re shredding it.

So you left the capital and headed to Mongu?

Mongu is a very poor town. Some houses don’t have real walls, and you have to be mentally prepared for this sort of place. You see serious poverty, and it’s difficult to keep your mind on the job. But once we started the build, and you saw thousands of kids come to see what was going on, you realise that they need this, to have something to do with their time, to escape their daily lives, and think about something other than poverty.

Johnny K. is the hero of that story, right? Sharing his one skateboard with all those kids, and eventually getting the story out to Skate World Better and Wonders Around The World to get the park build going.

Man, this guy. Working with Johnny was amazing. He built the skate scene over there. The kids are riding around the streets everywhere, and it all came from his initiative. He was super excited when we showed up, and I was stoked to work with him. He is the type of local connection you want, somebody determined who can hook you up with everything you need.

How did the reality of Mongu affect that park build?

You know, when you work on a project, you know you have one month to build a skatepark. That’s your goal. You’ll do anything you have to do to achieve that. So at the beginning with Jonnie, we tried to find a big concrete mixer for the park. It took us a few days to find somebody who had one, but he was renting it way too expensive. We didn’t get a good vibe from him. We turned it down. Then one day, we were in the park and all these people came asking for a job. I started thinking: Why do we pay all this money for a mixer, when we could give local people work? And actually in Zambia, mixing concrete by hand is completely normal. They’re used to it. So we made the decision to employ 15 people for a month, and paid them each four-times the monthly salary. And we learned to mix concrete the classic Zambian way. It was beautiful. And the best way to make good contact with the neighbourhood. Now, the people who live closest to the park appreciate it because they built it, and got paid to build it.

It’s an investment in the community and the future of the space.

For sure, and okay so the quality of hand-mixed concrete is a little lower. But it’s a choice you make. Jonnie approved, Skate World Better approved. Everyone knew it was the right thing to do. That’s why all these NGOs have the goal of empowering the local community.

Okay, so you didn’t need the machine, but there must be necessities on a build. What stops you killing each other after a month of building a skatepark?

Music. In Mongu, it was crazy. One of our volunteers had a huge speaker, so we gave the phone to the local people. It was all big Ragga vibes, and all the kids around were dancing, as well as the local workers. There’s a real culture of dancing there. Then, you need good food, a shit ton of coffee, some beers at the end of the day, and that’s how we survive. It keeps us motivated.

How many parks have you built so far, Leo?

I don’t know. Fifteen, maybe. But what I like to say, is that I try to work with every NGO that does this kind of project. CJF, MakeLifeSkateLife, Wonders Around The World, SkateAid. Everyone has its own style. And everyone respects each other. I personally work closer with Wonders Around The World. Lisa is closer to CJF.

Which has been your favorite build so far?

That’s a tough question. But actually it’s the one project I did without one of these NGOs. It was the 100 Ramps project in Kanpur, India. The Holystoked! Crew. I met them five years ago in Nepal, on that first project. Five of them came from India to learn how to build a skatepark. Their vibe was so good, they gave so much India. After that, the volunteers gave them the tools to bring back to Bangalore, so they could start building this 100 Ramps skatepark.

“6am to 2am every day, for five weeks. It was fucking intense. But it brought us all together, it was almost too deep.”

I had a deep connection with them, and a few years later they called me. They were going to make the biggest skatepark in India for this movie Skater Girls. They needed somebody to help them, so I showed up. It was pretty spontaneous – a week after the call, I was there. When I showed up I realized how big it was – 1,000 m2, in five weeks, with only seven people. And it was in India, in the middle of the rainy season.

And this is your favorite?

Yeah! I’ve never been that tired in my whole life, it was like going to the end of my ability – the most I could handle. 6am to 2am every day, for five weeks. It was fucking intense. But it brought us all together, it was almost too deep. You see the kids, the families, and you just finish the park…

So, you have to choose: jump between skatepark builds for the rest of your life, and never get to go home again; or stay home forever, never to volunteer again?

Phwoar. Never go home. As long as I can bring my girlfriend with me, I’ll go forever, for sure.

Let’s hope she feels the same. Okay, so what’s your dream location to build a park in?

Ah that’s a deep question too. It’s quite a personal story, but I always wanted to build in the Moroccan village I used to visit all the time with my parents, when I was a kid. It’s a surf town, with a shit ton of kids and no real playgrounds. I have beautiful memories over there, too many good times, and I want to give back.

I hope you get to make that happen.

It’s on the way. I have some contacts.

Mysterious! Okay, so before we end this interview I have to ask you about some of these wild Instagram posts you have, Leo. Can you give us a little backstory to each of these?

Sure, let’s go.

Ah so this was the first day we arrived at the Mongu site. And when the kids worked out we were going to build the skatepark, like ten of them just turned up with their boards. They wanted to skate with us on the streets, they were so excited. I’d never seen skateboards like this before. Like, imagine you were to Google ‘Ancient skateboard’. This is what you’d expect to see. They look gnarly with the nails holding on the wheels. But they actually worked, some of them.

Wow, Chilly. I could speak for hours about this kid. This project was in Angola with CJF. It was the first time I’d done something with them, and everything was perfect. This kid would turn up to the site everyday. You could see he had nothing to do, just hanging on the street, super poor. For months, we gave him the chance to live a different life. We took him for food, let him hang with us. Sometimes we’d finish doing the concrete very late, we’d crack a beer, but Chilly would still be going for it trying to work. He learned how to do concrete in two days, didn’t even ask questions – he just worked it out. At the end, we gave him a board, and I got a tattoo of him so I’d never forget him.

Shit! Okay, this is not from a project. But it’s a good story actually. This is Elliot on the left. He’s my best friend in the whole world. He’s a little younger than me, and I’ve taken him everywhere with me since he was 13. He’s 26 now, and is skating crazy good, working for skatepark companies. We always go on projects together. And on the right, Milly I met on the Taghazout project. She’s like a sister. We do a lot on Wonders Around The World together, she’s very involved too. This was late at night, or early in the morning, after we partied. We were in Germany, close to Denmark, and they decided to tattoo each other’s lips at the same time. Nothing more.

Okay, so let’s wrap up, Leo. Is skatepark building an artform?

It is. It is an art. Especially this sort of project. It’s like sculpture, you create shapes with concrete, you create surfaces, colors, and you have to change and adapt to the environment. You can add your own creative touches, and every choice you make will influence the lives of the kids who skate it. It’s imagination, in concrete.

For anyone thinking of getting into volunteering, what would you say to them?

I would say, we get a lot of mails at Wonders Around The World from people who want to volunteer for projects. I completely understand. It’s a dream. But it’s important that people know that we are at the beginning of this wave, things are going to grow, there are hundreds of projects waiting to start. We need people to build them, but first we need people who can help us raise money, contact locals, secure land to build on, organize. Only after that, can we actually start building. That’s how people can really help.

Where next for you, Leo?

I have just started leading Wonders Around The World France, a subsidiary. Our first project will happen in November, in Ghana. It’s a beautiful project, with Surf Ghana. The skate scene there is amazing, and so we’re going to build a 600m2 park in the capital, and hopefully will cut the ribbon on 27th November.

We’ll keep in touch, and see how that evolves. Good luck, Leo. Thanks for talking to us.

Follow Léo Poulet on Instagram: @lait_o_poulet