Jerame Nelson was a struggling eighth grader from West Oak Lane when he laced up his skates to join the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation.
Now, he's a college-bound high school senior.
Virlen Reyes was, in her own words, so shy as a 13-year-old in Kensington that she barely spoke.
"I actually had no goals at all. I had no desire to better myself as a person," Reyes said.
She signed up for the Snider hockey program, too. Now, she's 19 and playing forward on the Division I hockey team at West Chester University, where she is studying philosophy and criminal justice.
"The people in the foundation really built me," she said. "It's not just about the sport. The sport drew me in, but what kept me in was the advice and the emotional help I needed to better myself."
If it seems hard to imagine that the often-bruising sport of hockey can improve lives, one need only look to the three newly renovated city rinks, where recreational skaters circle gracefully, and the children who play in the Snider hockey program learn to chase - and make - goals.
And it's all free.
Since the foundation, started by Flyers owner Ed Snider, took over the rinks in 2008, recreational skaters pay no admission, just a small fee to rent skates.
"It's a hidden jewel," architect Brian Yachyshen said of the redone Laura Sims Skate House in West Philadelphia. He grew up in Canada, fondly recalling how an ice rink "might be the first place you hold a girl's hand."
But even by the high standards of a native Canadian, Philadelphia's rinks glitter.
"Free skating - where else can you get free skating?" he wondered, shortly after stepping off the ice.
In the hockey program, students get playing time, coaching in both the sport and life, and skates, padding, and other equipment that can cost up to $1,500 per year per child.
About 2,500 students play, costing the foundation $2.4 million yearly for equipment, travel, and other expenses.
The foundation also paid $6.5 million, which was matched by the state, to enclose three city rinks - Sims, Scanlon in Kensington, and Simons in West Oak Lane. Sims and Simons reopened recently, and Scanlon is expected to soon.
Comcast kicked in $1 million to outfit the rinks with computer labs.
Enclosing the rinks keeps them open for 10 months of the year, instead of just four.
Eventually, the foundation plans to redo Rizzo Rink in South Philadelphia and Tarken in Oxford Circle.
With no Snider funds, the city would have closed Sims, Scanlon, and Simons.
The fight to save the rinks started at Scanlon. Mayor John F. Street, arguing that the black and Latino children in Kensington preferred baseball to hockey, wanted to close Scanlon to build a ball field there.
To prove city officials wrong, Kensington activist Marnie Aument-Loughrey pointed to the ethnic diversity among Snider Foundation skaters. She was part of a group that found $3 million in the city budget to keep Scanlon and Tarken open.
But only a few years passed before the Nutter administration, reeling from the economic crisis, proposed closing the rinks again.
"I said, 'I will fight like hell,' " Aument-Loughrey said. "People asked, 'Why are you fighting to save it for kids when you don't have any that age?' I said because I had it as a kid. My father skated on Scanlon. It's something that no matter what your nationality, no matter what your background, you're a kid in Philadelphia, you're ice skating."
Snider had been pondering building a large hockey facility in South Philadelphia. In late 2008, Susan Slawson, who oversees the city's recreation programs, called foundation president Scott Tharp.
Together, they decided to renovate the three rinks instead of building a new one.
"Hockey is my business, and I felt that it could be the hook to help inner-city kids," said Snider, 78.
Operating at 10 rinks in Philadelphia and Camden, the program puts each child on the ice three to six days a week. Children spend about an hour on the ice and 30 minutes each on homework and "life skills," including the importance of hard work.
Snider coaches review each child's report card.
"We use that as a positive, constructive tool to get kids to recognize the connection between their behavior in school and out-of-school activities," said Jim Britt, the foundation's chief operating officer. "If a child wants to come to us, they have to put in some sweat equity."
He says 96 percent of participants graduate from high school.
Rink neighbors told Britt and other officials that stereotypes about minorities not wanting to skate - there are only 28 black players in the National Hockey League - were not true. Many residents said they wanted an indoor sport to keep their children busy year-round and away from the crime on many basketball courts.
Children who need academic help get tutors.
"It wasn't the work that was too hard. It was the fact that I wasn't doing it," said Nelson, who received tutoring, is now on his high school's honor roll, and hopes to go to West Chester University. Britt and other coaches "asked me if wanted to go to college. . . . That's what pushed me."
Reyes set her sights higher after meeting other players headed for college.
Her mother had supported her and a brother and sister with some work and some welfare. No one in her family went to college. In her Kensington neighborhood, she often witnessed fights and drug deals.
"My family, I love them to death and everything, but in my senior year, I started to realize that people don't have the same goal-setting as others, and mine were different from my family. It was kind of hard to realize that, but it made me want to make my family proud," Reyes said.
Her brother tried the Snider program but "got into some trouble" and did not stick with it.
"Sometimes you just can't change people," she said.
She works for the foundation during the summer.
"When I see kids coming in to play, and they're like 5 or 6, I'm so damn jealous. These kids are going to be amazing. The program is like an assembly line. You might have something that's broken, but once it gets through the assembly line, it's a product everybody wants."
For open-skate sessions and other information, contact city ice rinks directly. General information is available at www.phila.gov/recreation/Ice_Rinks.html.
Public skating is free, and skate rental is available (and not free). The five rinks are:
Laura Sims Skate House, Cobbs Creek Parkway and Walnut Street, 215-685-1995.
Rizzo Ice Rink, Front Street and Washington Avenue, 215-685-1593.
Scanlon Ice Rink, J and Tioga Streets, 215-685-9893. (Currently closed, call for reopening date.)
Simons Ice Rink, Walnut Lane and Woolston Street, 215-685-3551.
Tarken Ice Rink, Frontenac and Levick Streets, 215-685-1226.
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