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Falling down and loving it

Fort Dupont ice rink provides Ďsafe havení

(Published February 28, 2000)

By SAM STRIKE

Staff Writer

Picture a handful of elementary school children sprawled out on an ice rink, wriggling to get up and a few clinging to the sideboard at Fort Dupont Skating Rink in Southeast Washington.

Now try to tell one of them that learning to skate is hard.

"Itís fun skating," said kindergartner Eric Pierre.

Why?

"Itís fun to fall down."

Other children chime in as they fly toward the board: "Itís fun to skate like Miss Jessica can," referring to their instructor, Jessica Waldner.

"Donít let me see you guys playing. You have to practice," she warns the children from Our Lady Queen of Peace School as they line up and stumble to the rink. The private Catholic school, located just down the street at 37th and Ely Place SE, uses the rink Wednesday afternoons as part of an after-school program.

"Kids have different sets of attitude about schoolwork when they know they can come and skate," said Fred Wilson, manager of the Fort Dupont Skating Rink.

The Districtís only indoor skating rink, which almost closed its doors in 1996, "has turned into a safe haven for the kids," Wilson said. In 1999, more than 3,500 children skated there, Wilson said, and the numbers are expected to increase this year.

The National Park Service owns the rink -- it sits on Fort Dupont Park -- and before 1997 it was operated by a concessionaire. But the rink "wasnít generating enough revenue and it wasnít serving the community as a whole," officials told Willem Polak, then a parent of an ice hockey player at Saint Albans School.

Polak and other parents didnít want their children and the hockey community to lose the only local indoor rink. They formed a nonprofit organization, the Friends of Fort Dupont, which Polak now chairs, to keep the facility open.

Last fall the Friends signed a 35-year operation agreement with the park service because it was difficult obtaining funding with the original five-year commitment, Wilson said.

The Friends rent ice time at a reduced cost to church groups and Special Olympics activities, among other groups. Each year the group also subsidizes the ice for a group of children from Chernobyl, Russia, who visit through a church group in Virginia, Wilson said.

Since taking over, the Friends of Fort Dupont has financed enormous renovations, he said, including replacing the heating and air-conditioning for the rink and building locker rooms. In that time the nonprofit raised $1.7 million for the program and rehabilitation of the building by seeking contributions from foundations and private companies.

"Theyíve seen the value of what they can do for these children," Polak said of the donors who were responsible for, among other things, a new Zamboni machine to clean the ice and the skates for the rink.

The children love coming to the rink and really enjoy it, said Waldner, a nationally-rated skating instructor who teaches children in the "Learn to Skate" program. The primary component of the rinkís Kids on Ice program, "Learn to Skate" takes place both during weekends and weekdays.

Money generated from renting time at the rink pays for a portion of the Kids on Ice program. Many colleges both in the District and the surrounding area rent ice time at Fort Dupont, and teams come from as far as Prince William County, Va., Wilson said.

"We do a good business on the for-profit side," Polak said, adding that the number of hockey teams in the region has surged in recent years.

The Friends group plans to add a tutoring and mentoring area and office space in the near future, and eventually another skating rink, Wilson said.

The directing board of the nonprofit is made up of people from the community, including parents from Gonzaga College High School and Saint Albans, two principal users of the rink; Phyllis Howard, a chairman of the U.S. Figure Skating Association; and representatives of the Marshall Heights, Kenilworth Park and Anacostia neighborhoods like Albert Hopkins, president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp.

"Itís a unique experience," Polak said. "A blend of nonprofit and for-profitÖgetting out in the community and getting that many children involved in skating and hockey."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator