Agi Kovacs stands in the entryway of the rink at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena with her iPhone at the ready. On an early Saturday afternoon, the 36-year-old Capitol Hill resident is snapping photos of her daughter Lili Childers, 6, who is skating across the ice under the supervision of instructor Patrice Willoughby.
“She would not let go of the wall last week, and then this week . . . she didn’t even want to hold my hand,” Kovacs says proudly. “She wanted to go by herself.”
Lili is one of the 180 children taking to the ice every Saturday as part of Fort Dupont Ice Arena’s Kids on Ice program. For a suggested $20 donation, D.C. area kids (ages 5 to 18) are taught to glide and slide in an eight-week course at the nonprofit rink. Throughout the day there are three 25-minute sessions for the newbies, starting at 10:50 a.m. and ending at 1:20 p.m. For students who want to advance their ice skills, there are hockey, speed and ice skating classes. All skating sessions — which include 60 kids at a time — are on a first-come, first-served basis, with priority given to returning skaters. The instructors, ages 12 to 47, are all volunteers.
As kids crowd around the window to get their skates, there’s a palpable excitement in the air despite the indoor rink’s 40-some-degree temperature. Such a gleeful atmosphere was the draw for volunteer Eddie Lee of Arlington. The 28-year-old learned to skate two years ago and now is teaching first-timers.
“You get to see the same kids, and it’s something they look forward to outside of school,” he says. “Really in the area, they don’t have much. It’s pretty cool.”
For Shelly Martinez, 45, it has become a family tradition. On a friend’s suggestion, the D.C. resident started bringing her then 5-year-old daughter, Elise, to the skating program in Ward 7 in 2005. It wasn’t long before she was asked to pitch in, despite not having skated in 20 years. Seven years later, mother and daughter teach a beginner class together.
“It’s like our family thing, what the family does on Saturdays,” she says. “Over the last two years, Elise has been helping to teach the little kids, too. She’s developed a passion for teaching.”
One needn’t be an expert skater to pitch in, either. Fort Dupont has only three full-time staffers, making for a lot of ways to get involved. Volunteers work in the snack bar, man the day’s check-in table and hand out skates. While the current eight-week course ends March 3 and the next doesn’t start until July, development manager Katie Sieck notes that the rink needs folks to help with special events, camps and even social media marketing throughout the summer.
“We hook people by bringing them in,” explains Sieck, who started as a volunteer in 2010. “You’re surrounded by little kids talking to you even if you’ve only been here for three seconds. That’s the part that really draws you.”
Such a welcoming atmosphere is what inspired Willoughby to find her footing here. The 47-year-old learned how to skate just six years ago and has taught classes for the youngest kids for the past three years.
“It’s just amazing,” says the Alexandria resident. “On one hand you can say it’s just recreation, but you really see the light bulb click on when a little kid discovers that if they fall down they can get back up again. They can have success. It’s something very tangible.”
Her words ring true just a half-hour later. Willoughby is back in the rink, leading a group of six youngsters in a successful march across the ice.
Where is it? Fort Dupont Ice Arena, 3779 Ely Pl. SE