Hockey offers youths a break from the problems of everyday life

Giving kids a playing chance


It's the last game of the season, and De Andre Williams, 10, the Patterson Stars' goalie, hasn't let a puck slip past him yet.

"Way to go, De Andre! Great save!" shouts coach Mark Conner from the sidelines.

Teammate Donesha Parker, 12, glides across the ice with the grace of an Olympian and the grit of a speed skater, driving the puck into the opposing team's net with ease, scoring four, five times. Her brother Dante Moye, 11, also a player, is impressed.

It's hard to imagine that just a few months earlier, De Andre, Donesha, Dante and many of their teammates had never stepped in an ice rink before.

"These kids learned faster than any kids I've ever coached," Conner said. "They're so hungry. We get kids who have never seen a sheet of ice before and within an hour, they're skating, stick handling and shooting. There's this survival instinct in them and they use it."

Unlike the beginning of the season, when stands were rather empty, the last game drew a large group of parents, some snapping pictures, another recording it all on his video camera. Player Brittany Winley, 13, beckoned her dad, Joseph Winley, to come out.

Brittany had never ice skated before, "so to see her out there skating made me proud," Joseph Winley said. "I can't ice skate."

For the past few months, these kids trudged every Sunday morning to the Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro Family Ice Skating Rink at Patterson Park, backs hunched with the weight of oversized gym bags filled with shoulder pads, long johns, knee socks and all the tools needed to play ice hockey.

It might not seem like an extraordinary feat, but for these kids from Baltimore - many of whose parents are on drugs or in jail - a day playing ice hockey is a respite from it all.

Noel P. Acton, the director of the Tender Bridge, a nonprofit organization that reaches out to at-risk youth, is at the center the effort. After his lobbying efforts, Baltimore Youth Ice Hockey paid the ice fees and registration fees so the kids could play.

And every Sunday, Mr. Noel, as the kids call him, steers his big gray van through the streets of East Baltimore to pick up his kids.

Acton, 62, a retired architect from Towson, parks smack in the middle of the street, hops out, engine still running and heartily raps on the doors of his kids.

"Hi! It's Mr. Noel!"

At one home, a woman can be heard through the door, "Mr. Noel! Mr. Noel, y'all!" urging her children to get ready.

Acton, who has no children of his own, has developed a rapport with many of the parents. Recently, the mother of a 12-year-old boy who plays ice hockey called him in the middle of the night to help her retrieve her son from the police station. The mother uses drugs and had no identification.

Half organized and half running on memory, Acton - in a wrinkled shirt and jeans - clutches a list of printed names and a cell phone. He sips a can of generic cola. He whips the van around a cluster of narrow streets - McElderry, North Luzerne - where most of the kids hanging out know his name. They call out to him. His cell phone rings. "Can you come get me?" one boy asks.

How can he say no?

Many are dealing with issues that would bewilder any child. Parents on drugs, in jail. Some are HIV-infected or have AIDS. At least one boy was sexually abused.

The kids curse. They jostle for the front seat. They argue over the radio. They ask Acton for soda. Snatch up all the packages of coffee cakes and honey buns - probably more than they should have.

By the time they arrive at Patterson Park, Acton's voice has grown hoarse, but he's still smiling.

"I really realized: These kids basically didn't have parents," Acton said. "When you have a single mom on drugs, the kids don't have parents. The drug addiction really kills their self-esteem. You want to work with them so they don't drop out of school and start selling drugs on a corner."

It's 10:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday inside the building that houses the ice rink, and the 42 children that attend each week are suiting up. A network of volunteers, including Baltimore Youth Hockey board members, Stanley Cup winners and high school ice hockey players, transports them from home to the rink to teach them how to play.

Donna Brust, vice president of Baltimore Youth Hockey, attends practice each week.

"You get hooked in," Brust said. "You get attached to these kids. They call me on my cell phone."

Her son, Pat, 16, a junior at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson and a player on his school's ice hockey team, volunteers each week.

"The hugs," she added. "They love to get hugs. You have to wonder why getting hugs is so important to them."

Playing ice hockey is just one component of what the kids do. Three times weekly, Acton, some of the coaches and volunteers hold squad sessions, where they play games and talk about the issues that affect the kids' lives.

"We're trying to encourage the kids to talk about themselves and their experiences," Acton said. "To make them feel comfortable talking about themselves."

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