If you grew up anywhere in the southern hemisphere, chances are there were no local ice rinks or arenas for you to learn to skate on.
For example, in the South American country of Colombia, the capital city of Bogota boasts only two indoor ice rinks for its population of over seven million people and costs associated with using it are often high.
Upon their arrival to Canada many immigrants, refugees, and newcomers have often never seen an ice rink in person and often they have never experienced a winter or seen snow.
When Nidia Lopez, 17, came to Canada four years ago, all she wanted out of her first winter was to learn how to ice skate. Lopez explains her interest in ice-skating came from, “Wanting to be able to adapt to Canada’s culture and become more socialized.”
Thanks to Rachel Pinno who works with the Central Alberta Refugee Effort, an immigrant settlement agency based out of Red Deer, Lopez’s dream of learning to skate become a reality. “In the fall of 2011 Nidia expressed a great interest in learning to skate,” explained Pinno. “So we started the program for any immigrant or newcomer to Canada who wanted to learn to skate and the City jumped onboard right away with us and supported us to get into the arenas.”
Lopez recalled her first time on the ice as a frightening experience, stating that she was intimidated and scared to hurt herself on the hard and unforgiving ice surface.
“Rachel told me to get my helmet on and wear my snow pants so that there was more padding in case I fell as she didn’t want me to hurt myself,” said Lopez. “So I got on the ice and fell probably 10 times right away, but she kept helping me and I got a lot of practice in and it gets better.”
Thus, the ‘Learn to Skate’ program was born, and has since grown to include over 60 youth every year. “It went so well and the kids loved it so much that we have kept it going every holiday break for the last few years,” said Pinno.
“It’s a truly incredible program and it’s amazing to see their faces when they find their balance and I usually get a lot of, ‘Hey, Miss Rachel look at me!’”
The program is offered free of charge to immigrant youth thanks to support from the City, and all equipment is provided for them including helmets and skates.
In addition to learning to skate, youth also had the chance to try their hand at hockey during the three days of the program which began on Dec. 29th at the G.H. Dawe Centre, then moved the next day to Bower Ponds and finished with a hockey tutorial from members of the Red Deer Pond Hockey Association at the outdoor rink in Oriole Park.
“I’m at a point now where I can help other people learn and it feels good because you have been where they are before,” stated Lopez who also joined in on the instruction this year. “It’s nice to be able to help them feel more comfortable so they can enjoy skating more often.”
Other instructors for Learn to Skate included ESL teacher from C.A.R.E. and former CanSkate instructor Carol Smyth, Patti Somer from the Red Deer Skating Club and numerous others, including C.A.R.E. volunteer Darren Thompson.
Thompson explained he began working with C.A.R.E. in the fall after looking into ways that he could volunteer in the community.
“I was looking for something that I could relate to, and with my parents originally being from Barbados it kind of just fit,” explained Thompson, who was born and raised in Red Deer. “When I was a kid we would just go to the local rink, often times the Dawe and free skate around, my friends and I, and it was just a really fun time as a kid and it’s nice to be able to share that.”
Thompson explained there is usually a lot of nervousness at first and the hardest part of instructing is to help people find their balance on skates, and that while it may be a struggle at times – the joy on their faces when they finally skate on their own is well worth the many falls.