Grant gives tots time on the ice
Whether they licked it, rolled on it, or skated on it, 140 preschoolers recently took to the ice at the Martha's Vineyard Arena for a free, 10-week learn-to-skate program that may grow some budding hockey players and figure skaters.
A $25,000 grant from the Rocksprings Foundation, "a Maryland-based foundation with Island ties," paid for the entire program for the preschoolers, including helmets, ice skate rentals, instructor's fees, and ice time.
The grant also covered the preschoolers' registration costs in the United States Figure Skating Association, which offers the "Snowplow Sam" learn-to-skate program in which they participated, along with the badges and patches they earned.
Instructor Beth Blankenship lends Joey Cywinski of Project Headway preschool a steadying hand. Photos by Ralph Stewart
Held on weekday mornings, the preschool classes put the arena to use at a time it is usually empty. Beth Blankenship, the arena's professional figure skating instructor, taught 12 classes of three- to five-year-olds, with 19 in the largest group.
"Basically because they were so little, I let them do anything," said Ms. Blankenship. "One boy would roll around and crawl. That's fine - that means he's not afraid of the ice."
The children used single blade skates, and progressed from crying in frustration, "I can't do this," to "flying around the rink, wanting to skate," Ms. Blankenship said. "That's the best thing, I think."
Since the classes involved a lot of one-on-one instruction in the first few weeks, parents and preschool teachers helped. Ms. Blankenship also recruited members of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) hockey teams, both girls and boys, who donated their time as a community service project.
"Every child absolutely loved it, and the parents and teachers were so excited," said Ms. Blankenship. "A lot of the kids are wanting to ice-skate now, and it has helped grow the numbers at the rink."
Savannah Waller of Project Headway preschool gives a triumphant wave as she conquers the ice.
Jeanne Ogden, who serves on the boards of directors of the arena and the Figure Skating Club, wrote the grant asking for $10,000 for a five-week program and submitted it last September. "The arena for years has wanted to set up a youth program aimed at children three to five who might not be able to participate or have the funds to do it," said Ms. Ogden. "It also would provide a feeder program for youth hockey and figure skating."
Starting with hopes for a five-week program, Ms. Ogden said to her surprise, "We found out the last week of December we were awarded a grant for $25,000, and the foundation asked if we could do a 10-week program. It was better than we expected."
That meant organizing the program quickly to fit in ten weeks between the end of January and the ice arena's seasonal closure this month. With no time to advertise, Ms. Ogden, the arena management and staff phoned Island preschools that could likely take advantage of morning classes.
"It was such a joy to work on. I actually really, really enjoyed putting it together and then seeing it take off," said Ms. Ogden, who helped the children register and lace up their skates the first week. "Seeing their smiling faces, it didn't seem like a lot of work to have that kind of reaction."
The classes culminated in the preschoolers' debut at the arena's annual figure skating ice shows on April 8 and 9. The rink closed on April 10 and will reopen on July 15 for summer figure skating and hockey camps.
Looking ahead, Ms. Ogden plans to reapply for the grant for next year, building on the preschool program's success perhaps by adding some instructors.
"I'm very happy about how it was run. It can only get better. For $25,000, to get 140 kids learning to skate, that is really not that much money. I think it can take off even more next year," she said.
In addition to providing the children with a physical activity during the winter months, Ms. Ogden observed, "We could see an increase in public ice-skating afterwards. It definitely built up more participation."