Adam Bouffard and his mother, Kim, knew they’d be considered nerdy last Sunday, on a perfect spring day.
They knew the teens flying around the skateboard park behind Everett Arena, on the banks of the Merrimack River, were part of a subculture that promoted defiance, independence, a taste for danger.
They knew these kids – and there were nine that day – would not be wearing helmets, because kids this age, engaged in this sort of sport, often see themselves as indestructible and cool.
“I feel so old,” Kim Bouffard told me as she opened her car’s hatchback, where nine new helmets sat. “It’s humbling that not one person has a helmet on. It breaks my heart.”
Kim, whose son nearly died at age 19 because he refused to wear a helmet, wants to change that. She’s raised $5,000 on a GoFundMe site and purchased 250 high-quality helmets. She plans to give away dozens on Saturday at the Boys & Girls Clubs in Concord.
Before that, she hoped to hand out some freebies so I’d have something to build on for what is certainly ideal column material.
Adam Bouffard, now 32, once fit the skateboarder stereotype at Keene State College. His long hair blew in the wind, he was hooked on speed and he had no concept of the word “consequences.”
Translation: no helmet.
So when he fell off his skateboard during a crazy stunt, and had no helmet on, and hit his head on the pavement, Adam’s life changed forever. He had to re-learn how to dress and eat and bathe and speak.
In fact, Adam could have died. Instead, he’s made enough of a recovery to live in his own apartment, drive and join his mother in a campaign to spread the word: Wear a helmet at the local skateboard park, where a sign recommends you wear one but has no law behind it to force you.
During an interview the day before we met at the skate park, Adam mentioned the sign that lacked any real teeth. He was at his parents’ home off Airport Road, doing laundry. He said he drives past the arena all the time. He sees the kids with no helmets. He sees the sign.
“It makes me think,” Adam told me. “The sign the government put up next to the park that says we would like you to wear protective equipment on your head, elbows, knees for your own safety. It should be a law. The kids think they know exactly what they’re doing, – ‘Why would I need to wear a helmet?’ ”
Adam felt that way on Sept. 11, 2004. Before then, he was funny, easygoing, artistic, a music lover and, yes, a risk-taker. He was a graphic arts major at Keene State the day he raced at least 20 mph, maybe 30, down a street with no fear and no helmet.
He turned toward flat ground to slow down, lost his balance, fell and hit his head. He had three surgeries. He spent six weeks in the hospital and needed constant rehab.
“He had to re-learn everything,” said his father, Mike Bouffard, a local teacher. “It was like having a 6-foot-2 2-year-old in the house.”
Kim and Mike played card and puzzle games with their son, exercising his brain, a process with an outcome that the medical community says is never black and white.
In time, though, Adam’s identity, his connection and commitment to his family – his soul, if you will – all returned.
“His surgeon told us he might reconnect, but it would never occur to Adam to just call and say hi,” Kim said. “That’s the part of the brain they had to take out, the part that tells you to do something like that. But he does that now. He called us to just say hi and we were crying.”
Adam, as Kim noted, is high-functioning. But, she added: “Technically, he’s developmentally disabled, and that’s not going to change. He goes off on tangents and you have to roll him back in. He’s lost a lot of friends because he’s a different person. That’s normal for people with his kind of injury. But he’s happy.”
He’s also aware of what happened to him and what could happen to others. That brings us back to the skateboard park behind Everett Arena. Kim worried that Adam wouldn’t show up, saying he sometimes withdraws, but he pulled in shortly after his mother and I arrived.
While mother and son built their nerve and adjusted to the upcoming task at hand, I went into the park to meet the daredevils, all of whom were in their teens, none of whom wore head gear. They had skateboards, scooters and BMX bikes, which rode over wooden obstacles that lifted you into the air.
I met Hunter Levesque, a Concord High freshman whose long brown hair jutted out from underneath a ski hat.
“I usually say I’ll keep it in mind,” Levesque told me, referring to wearing a helmet. “But it’s uncomfortable.”
He said he wears a helmet at indoor places in Rye and Tilton, where it’s mandatory. Outside in Concord, though, it’s your choice.
Earlier in the day, Levesque said he’d fallen, and he had the scrapes on his hand, forearm, knee and shin, not to mention a hole in his shorts, to prove it.
“I ate it,” he told me. I’d never heard that expression before, but I knew what he meant.
I met 18-year-old Braden Meyer of Penacook. He, too, had a ski hat on and long hair coming out the back. He, too, said a helmet might be a good idea, but “it cramps my style.”
Meyer told me why he’s missing his front tooth. Three years ago he looked back to talk to a buddy while riding his BMX bike and “got a mouthful of windshield.”
“I chipped other teeth and needed a root canal,” Meyer said.
I also met 11-year-old Cole Guay of Concord, who accepted a helmet from the Bouffards because he fell off his bike last November and shattered his old one. “I probably would have had brain damage without it,” Cole told me.
Brian Gibbs of Concord took a helmet, too. He told me he once hit a pothole riding his bike to his grandmother’s and suffered cuts.
“My parents are always yelling at me to get a helmet,” Brian told me. “I guess it was time to get a helmet.”
None of the stories I heard, however, compared to the life-changing event that Adam Bouffard experienced 13 years ago. None of the parents had to endure the pain of watching a child re-learn the simplest tasks.
I emailed Brian’s father, also named Brian, and asked for comment on his son’s new helmet.
“I’m happy he decided to put one on and hopefully Adam’s story hit him,” the elder Gibbs wrote. “As he experiments with different tricks, I’m sure things will happen. Hopefully he’ll have his protective gear on to soften the blow.”