ANNAPOLIS -- Fifteen-year-old Matthew Weimer goes to the Salvation Army center in Annapolis two or three times a week, but he's not looking for food, clothing or shelter. He's looking for the center's skateboard ramp.

The Salvation Army's 30-foot wooden ramp here is "a mission of mercy" for skateboarders who are banned from city streets in most sections of Annapolis, said Lt. James K. Seiler, commanding officer of the city's Salvation Army.

"We feel like we have to provide a haven for the young people," who want to use their skateboards, Seiler said. A 1976 city ordinance forbids skateboarding on most streets and sidewalks in Annapolis.

Skateboarders, including some who use the Salvation Army facility, still take to the streets in certain residential areas where it's legal, and sometimes in areas where it's not. Earlier this month the Annapolis police confiscated the skateboard of a boy using it on Main Street in the congested area near the city dock.

The Salvation Army has the only indoor skateboarding facility here, and about 150 youngsters pay an annual fee, ranging from $5 to $12, to use it.

The fee also entitles the skater to use equipment for ping pong, pool, weightlifting and other activities in the Salvation Army's gymnasium on Hilltop Lane, southwest of the historic district.

Although other Salvation Army centers have recreation programs, Seiler said he believes the Annapolis Center is the only one with a skateboard ramp.

"Whenever we have meetings {of Salvation Army officers from other centers} here, we try to put on a skateboarding demonstration," said community center director Dennis Thompson. "Everyone's amazed."

The idea for the ramp began about two years ago with a group of youngsters using the center's other facilities. They asked Thompson if they could have a ramp for skateboarding, and he found a local bicycle shop owner willing to donate a small ramp that was going to be torn down.

"It was just two pieces of wood propped up against a wall," Thompson said, but "it drew a crowd. Kids started coming in just to see it."

A few months later, volunteers helped build the present ramp, which is 30 feet long, eight feet wide and rises to a height of eight feet at each end. Donations paid for the $1,000 in construction materials.

At first, the Salvation Army's insurance providers were skeptical about the liabilities a skateboard ramp would create.

"But we convinced them {the insurers} about the safeguards we had installed, the supervision and the protective gear," Seiler said.

The ramp has not affected the center's insurance rates because the Salvation Army buys its liability insurance as a region. "So, in effect, all of the Salvation Army units in the southeastern United States of America are helping to pay for my liability insurance," Seiler said, laughing.

Although skateboarders regularly fall, flip over and fly off the ramp, the only "real injury" so far has been to a child standing about 10 feet away from the ramp, Seiler said. Hit by a flying skateboard, the child was taken to the hospital as a precaution but required no treatment, he said.

Since then, a protective net has been placed at the end of the ramp.

While children as young as 4 years old have tried the ramp, most of the skateboarders are teen-agers, and they don't seem to worry about the dangers.

Matthew Weimer specializes in a midair maneuver known as a "Matt Splat" in which he flies off the ramp and lands in a heap on the floor.

"It hurts," he said, getting up, "but it's fun."

His mother, Carole Burchette, of Annapolis, laughed. "It was really hard to watch him do this at first," she said. "But now I'm used to it."

Burchette said Matthew used to have a small skateboard ramp behind their house, but their neighborhood's architectural review committee told the family to tear it down.

Matthew has been coming to the Salvation Army's ramp since it opened, and she said she is grateful for the things he's learned there.

"In his academic life he lacks discipline and stick-to-it-iveness," Burchette said. "And here he's learned that if you stick with something and if you keep working at it and working at it, you enjoy some success."

Other parents said they appreciate the rules enforced at the Salvation Army: No fighting or swearing is allowed, and all skateboarders must wear helmets, along with knee, elbow and wrist pads.

Several youths said they also used their skateboards on streets near their homes, but without the protective gear required at the Salvation Army facility.

"I used to have some gloves, but they got all torn up, so I don't wear any" protective gear on the street, said Chris Frank, 14, of Edgewater.

Helmets and pads are "too bulky," agreed Dean Samaras, 14, of Annapolis, but he still prefers the ramp to the street because of the tricks he's learned there.

He demonstrated by flipping his feet in the air and riding the skateboard in a handstand.

Seiler watched. "I'd rather have him here than under someone's bumper," he said.

The skateboard ramp hasn't detracted from the center's other activities, he said. The money from the Christmas kettles still goes to filling food baskets and helping needy families with their rent and utility bills.