Winning on Wednesdays

Every week during the Kraken season, 60 children of refugee and immigrant families are learning how to skate-and so much more in a program intended to break down barriers.

By Bob Condor

Every Wednesday morning at the Kraken Community Iceplex, there is nothing short of undeniable transformation taking place on an ice rink.  

This is not hyperbole. There is no exaggerating how some 60 pre-school age kids are learning how to skate, having fun, developing life skills and, in the process, breaking down access and family income barriers that have existed too long in hockey and figure skating.  

The process features dozens and dozens of self-discoveries every week for children of refugee parents: 

  • Kids are falling down and happily getting right back up.  
  • A five-year-old boy chases a puck poked along by the skate of Martin Hlinka, director of the Kraken Youth Hockey Association. The boy is easily moving his feet and determined about that puck. 
  • On the opposite end of the ice, Chad Goodwin, director of the Kraken Skating Academy, is leading the universal children’s game of “Red Light, Green Light.” His gaggle of kids are stopping and starting again, unafraid to slip or stumble, joyful when they stop while remaining upright. 
  • Two girls, Ruby and Monroe, are playing a game of “Simon Says” with Kraken Community Iceplex development coach Katelyn Parker. The two girls are following Parker’s moves, mostly skating without looking down. One of the girls slips to the ice, so Parker flips the game to mimic falling on the ice herself, posing like a diver on her stomach. Suddenly a 4-year-old girl is the leader. All three lay on the ice laughing. 
  • Some of the 3- to 5-year-old skaters are still using a smiling fish push-cart for support, while others are braving open ice. This has not always been in the case in the first six weeks of these magical hours on ice. 

The weekly skate sessions represent a cornerstone of a program created by a partnership between the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) and One Roof Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Seattle Kraken and Climate Pledge Arena. Each week, the kids arrive by bus from ReWA early childhood centers, 20 each from Lake City, Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley.  

ReWA is a Seattle-based nonprofit, multi-ethnic organization that provides holistic services in more than 50 languages and dialects to help refugee and immigrant women and families stabilize and thrive. The concept is to promote inclusion, independence and equal access while respecting cultural values.  

ReWA clients are paired with professionals who speak their first language and are specifically attuned to their native cultures. The approach is effective in understanding unique barriers to success for clients and provides a “home base” of support and outreach.  

The 32-week program with the One Roof Foundation was a year-plus in the making. Kyle Boyd, director of fan development for the Kraken, reached out to Susan Lee, director of operations for ReWA’s early learning center. Lee attends the skating outings every Wednesday.  

“At the first lesson, many of our students were afraid to move around on the ice,” Lee said on recent Wednesday at the Iceplex. “[Six weeks later] they are now experimenting different ways of traveling on the ice and having more confidence in themselves.” 

The after-effect of the Wednesday sessions might be the best part. There are simple signs, such as children tell new parent-chaperones the routine or marking the number of kids, OK mostly boys, who teachers say are calmer back a pre-school after burning excess energy at the ice. 

“Many kids are skating today [early December] without holding the orange cones, which is great to see,” said Julie Lu, a teacher at ReWA’s Martin Luther King early childhood learning center in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. It’s an opportunity for the kids to experience other things to do. They are outside of school and home, which is pretty much what these children have known during COVID.” 

“The kids talk about it with their friends and parents,” said Wendoly Overa, a teacher at ReWa’s Lake City center. “They definitely look forward to it and ask about when they come to class on Wednesdays.” 

The classroom impact is undeniable, said Lee: “We’ve noticed a difference in their balancing skills, gross motor skills and traveling skills on the ice and at school. Children are pretending to skate during outside time and practicing how to fall safely and balancing with their arms out like an airplane.” 

One distinctive feature of the ReWA-One Roof collaboration is there is a proposed three-year plan. Each season, 60 new kids will participate. This season’s group will move on to hockey or figure skating programs at Kraken Community Iceplex during years two and three. The concept that both Lee and Boyd share is to create “champion” hockey players and skaters along with children who grow up healthier and better prepared to be good leaders and teammates/co-workers as adults.  

“The majority of skaters and ice hockey participants start skating at age 3, 4, or 5,” said Boyd. “This program is designed to establish greater equity by providing that same opportunity to kids from diverse and low-income families.

“There’s no catching up at older ages. Our goal is to make sure we have an inclusive and equitable ice sport community from the beginning of the participant journey.”  

Off the ice, there is another lasting dynamic. Parents of the newbie skaters are getting involved and intrigued with their children’s ice time. In fact, the Lake City early childhood center is up to 12 volunteer chaperones in rotation to help teachers get their skates on, serve the always-popular post-skate snacks and monitor everyone’s action on ice.  

Here’s a note Lee received from one of the Lake City mothers: 

“I am very grateful the Kraken offers this awesome training. I hope they realize how much this is appreciated. They are making a positive impact now and for the kids’ future.  

I feel like learning how to get back up when you fall is really teaching a life lesson. It can materialize into the good decisions each child will make as an adult. When you fall, you get back up and keep going. That is how I see it.”  

There are nuances of teaching proper ice-skating techniques to pre-school age children who are growing up in households in which languages besides English are part of conversations. 

Lee said she is impressed how easily the pre-schoolers separate from their familiar teachers without distress to join coaches Hlinka, Goodwin, Parker and fellow development coach David Kyu-Ho Min. 

“Our students accept redirections from the coaches and follow two to three steps of instructions, which we have been working with in the classroom too,” said Lee. “Many of our students are English language learners and two- or three-step instructions may be difficult. The coaches use gestures along with their instructions for students to visually follow.” 

Lee said the children’s English improves with each “practice”: “On the bus ride back to school, children are beginning to use expanded expressive vocabulary to describe what they learned. For example, one student said, ‘I used a puck and I hit it with orange thing cone’ … One day, they all wanted to share about what they learned and a new word of the day: ‘hockey puck.’ “