In the past, when Marilyn Piety skated at the University of Pennsylvania’s Class of 1923 Rink, she often noticed a cluster of kids watching the freestyle sessions. Did they want to learn to skate, or did they just like watching? Piety wondered.
Then, one morning, two young girls came to her with a question.
“Are you a figure skater?” they asked.
“I answered yes sheepishly, because you feel a bit ridiculous claiming to be one when you’re middle-aged,” she recalls.
The girls were part of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. But they really wanted to figure skate. “I don’t like hockey,” said one.
Then and there, Piety vowed to start a skating program for kids in Philadelphia public schools. “I teach the philosophy of sport at Drexel University,” she says. “I have a theory that movement—the sort afforded by sports and particularly music—has a very positive effect on a person’s development.”
Piety’s Philly Skates class starts up again this month at Penn. The program offers a unique and ongoing opportunity to inner-city youth, tracking participants’ performance in and out of school. Once a planned tutoring component is added, it will also provide on-the-job training for Drexel students interested in education or coaching.
For the instruction, Piety has relied on a contingent of prominent figure skaters who, like herself, either train or coach out of the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society in Ardmore. The teaching roster includes current U.S. bronze medallists in ice dancing Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre.
“I often feel so selfish to commit so much time to myself in the form of all the training Brent and I do,” Navarro says. “It’s nice to volunteer. These kids will probably never be Olympic champions—most skaters will never be. But they will learn a lot about self-discipline, courage, confidence and how to pick yourself up after a stumble.”
Plus, says Navarro, “The kids are having a great time in a safe place. I can tell because they smile and laugh a lot—even if their feet hurt.”
Michael Solonoski is also a Philly Skates instructor. He became the national collegiate men’s silver medalist this past summer, when the championships were held in Ardmore. A sixth-year Drexel architecture major, he’s working on his senior project—designing an ice surface along Boathouse Row, plus a small museum to celebrate PSCHS’ early history on the Schuylkill River.
All three skaters plan to be at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Jan. 14-24 in Spokane, Wash. The event serves as the qualifier for the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.
“The skaters were enthusiastic about getting involved when I described it to them,” says Piety. “It wasn’t even officially a program before they volunteered—and I mean ‘volunteered’ quite literally, because my grant wouldn’t extend to paying the instructors.”
The Lego Group provided the initial start-up grant from its Lego Children’s Fund, offering additional money to buy skates. “We just used the rental skates,” Piety says. “But I thought that was wonderful for them to make that offer.”
Philly Skates is modeled after the successful Figure Skating in Harlem program and Kids on Ice in Washington, D.C. But while the New York City version is only for girls, Philly Skates is coed.
“It’s great to give something back to skating that’s helping Philly out as well,” Bommentre says. “The kids are realizing that, when you’re confronted with the challenge of learning something hard, you can work through it. Hopefully, they’ll take that challenge of furthering themselves and apply it to every aspect of their lives.”
Lutheran Children and Family Services provides transportation and a chaperone for the kids. Another adult skater, Sue Lapin, fills in when one of the other instructors is away at a competition. All participants are registered in the U.S. Figure Skating Basic Skills program. Each gets a little book that describes what they’ll learn, and instructors put stickers beside each mastered skill. Most kids have never laced up before.
“Ice skating gives you a feeling of freedom and effortless movement like no other sport or activity,” says Solonoski. “Witnessing the students in the program experience that feeling for the first time reminds me why I fell in love with it so many years ago.”
Last year, Philly Skates’ began with 12 participants, though that number shrunk to six at the end.
“The kids got what was effectively private lessons from some of the best skaters in the country,” says Piety. “It was really cool to see how the kids blossomed on the ice and how they’d just light up when they mastered a skill. ”
Piety bought a pair of skates for one of the girls, Briana Muldrow, who had trouble fitting into a rental pair. After that, she was hooked, even showing up when school was canceled.
“She came pretty much every day, whereas other kids were sort of hit or miss,” Piety says. “I took her skating with me a couple times over the summer. I paid for her to have lessons with Kim and Brent out of my own pocket because I could tell she was really into it.”
“I think maybe I want to do this when I grow up,” says Muldrow, a freshman at West Philadelphia High School.
Though the program serves kids in grades K-8, Muldrow is returning this year as an assistant to the instructors. Her 11-year-old sister, Shamell, will be skating for the first time. “It makes me feel like I’m one of them—even though I’m not,” says Muldrow of her new role. “It keeps me motivated. The things they do, I want to do, too. I look up to them as role models.”
“Isn’t she just a doll?” Piety asks. “She’s very quiet when she’s not skating, but she just lights up when she’s on the ice. She wanted to get into one of the magnet high schools for the performing arts. I’m hoping that skating may help to compensate for her not getting into the school she wanted. I’m going to see that she can continue her lessons, too.”
Initially, Muldrow admits, she was scared of skating. But once she stepped onto the ice, it was easier than she thought. It helped that she already knew how to roller-skate. “It looked hard on TV, but the more I skated, the easier it became—and I got more interested,” she says. “Others quit, but I stayed.”
Piety—who goes by Miss Marilyn in the program—truly believes that anything that makes kids happy is going to inspire a positive difference in their lives. And Philly Skates clearly makes them happy.
“Gaining new skills is important to instilling confidence in kids—confidence they can then draw on in other contexts,” she says. “It’s also a nice opportunity for the kids and the adults to form friendships, so one will have a little better understanding of the other’s world.”
Piety also took lessons as a kid, but she never competed. When instruction became too expensive, she vowed to take up skating again as an adult, doing so six years ago at the age of 42.
“Skating is such an expensive sport,” says Piety. “It bothers me that there are activities kids may want to engage in, but can’t because their families don’t have enough money.”
This year’s Philly Skates class—an expected 15 skaters—is now part of Drexel’s Center for Civic Engagement, so more university students will be helping out. One Drexel volunteer, Taylor Nicoholson, is an accomplished figure skater and experienced instructor in the U.S. Figure Skating Basic Skills program.
Philly Skates is still taking baby steps, but the program will continue—even if Piety winds up in Boston on a possible sabbatical this semester.
“I’m hoping we’ll have a few more kids—enough that we can have little informal competitions,” she says. “I’m also looking forward to having some of last year’s kids back, so they can start learning more advanced skills.”
But even for beginners, nothing beats the rush of skating.
“It’s almost like flying,” Piety says. “You don’t even have to be good at it to have that experience.”