By Darlene Donloe
On a sunny, 81 degrees day in Los Angeles, 50 children are dressed warmly in fleece jackets, hats, headbands, and gloves inside The Rinks – Lakewood ICE where they are learning how to ice skate as part of the Unity Ice Academy’s summer program.
The brainchild of Ashleigh Ellis, a former competitive figure skater, the Unity Ice Academy, founded in 2021, is a four-week summer camp taking place in July for children between the ages of 5 and 12 who have an interest in ice skating. This is the Academy’s inaugural year.
“The Unity Ice Academy program is only four weeks due to availability,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons it’s offered in the summer. I found out that at the Lakewood rink, they have what is called three sheets of ice, which provides more availability throughout the day.”
Ellis, 31, said the camp, which is free, is designed to provide access to a sport that some kids, due to financial restraints, would otherwise never have access to.
About 85% of the children in the program are Black and brown, 10% are white, 5% are Asian, and all go to schools in Lakewood, Long Beach and Compton.
“There are some families that really need this program to be free,” said Ellis, who competed in the Junior Olympics. “Winter sports require a lot of equipment, coaching and traveling to the place where those sports are happening. They are the more expensive sports.”
Ellis, who grew up in New York, said when she was about 17, she wanted to open up an ice skating camp for young Black and brown children. So, after graduating from college, she coached ice skating at several rinks. In 2021, she decided to launch her nonprofit and bring her dream to fruition.
“When I put up the flyer last March, I had no idea what the response would be,” Ellis said. “Overnight we had 65 people sign up. There are 200 people on the waiting list. In July we had 50 kids. I never thought it would be that many or that the need would be that great.”
While the children learn how to ice skate, the curriculum also consists of field trips, dance classes, arts and crafts and self-esteem building.
When the ice rink is unavailable, Ellis said the kids have gone on field trips to movie theaters, Aquarium of the Pacific and Knotts Berry Farm.
“When we can’t do ice time, we want to keep the kids engaged,” said Ellis, who received a bachelor of arts degree in communications and psychology and minored in sociology at the University of Albany in New York. “We’re making this work the best way we can.”
The Unity Ice Academy runs Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to noon. The children are dropped off at the rink between 7 and 8 a.m. and fed breakfast. By 8 a.m., some of the children are on the ice and some are taking dance classes.
The groups then switch. Children spend between an hour and 90 minutes on the ice daily where they learn forward and backward crossovers, backward skating, waltz jumps, how to fall, how to stand up and more.
One of the program’s goals is to provide access and education in the sport of figure skating and instill life lessons of determination, confidence and drive in children.
“One really important thing about my program is that we focus on the word of the day,” said Ellis, a married mother of one. “It’s a life lesson that I want to share with the kids. I want everyone to take away life lessons. Some of the words we’ve used include confidence, resilience, preparation, dedication and courage, and how those words relate to skating. We highlight what it is and how it relates to our everyday lives.”
Ellis has received positive feedback from some parents.
“Having my son Eli, 7, join Unity Ice Academy has been an absolute dream come true,” said Amber Martinez. “Eli has been blessed with the opportunity to grow, develop social skills, and most importantly, just have fun. Eli has learned to skate and keep moving forward despite falling at times. Eli has come a long way in such a positive environment. It really shows what determination and consistency can do.”
“I grew up very low income and remember there being “opportunities” for us to do activities we couldn’t afford but I dreaded going to them because of how we were treated,” said Alegandrina Villapudua, who has a 7-year-old daughter (Sofia) and 5-year-old son (Rafael) in Unity Ice Academy. “I’ve never met someone that runs a program more professionally and who takes care of the program’s kids as if they were her own. I can tell Unity Ice will be a great thing for all these kids and many kids to come. My kids and I will forever hold amazing memories together.”
Ellis said, “Using the tools they learn from ice skating, these young children will grow into young women and men with dreams, goals, and desires bigger than they ever could have imagined before Unity Ice Academy.”
It was figure skating that helped Ellis believe in herself.
“I don’t think I would be able to begin a program like this had I not learned everything from ice skating,” said Ellis, who was also a high jumper in high school and received a scholarship to the University of Albany for track. “I owe who I am to this sport. The lessons I teach are the lessons I learned.”
On its website, the Unity Ice Academy catchphrase is “Inclusion, Equity, and Unity Through Ice Skating.” Ellis admits that’s a lot to put on the sport.
“It’s a lot of pressure, but from firsthand experience, I know that through this program we can change how these kids are thinking,” she said. “The growth they have had already is incredible. We have Black and brown kids, Asian, white, and children who are identifying as non-binary. We have coaches who are gay and straight. I want this to be an all-inclusive program.”
Ellis didn’t encounter any diversity when she entered the sport.
“I grew up in Long Island,” Ellis said. “It was mostly white people in the sport. I was the only Black person in all of the competitions. As I got older, it became very apparent to me. I didn’t understand why Black people had little access to the sport. There was never anyone who looked like me. It was always mostly children who didn’t look like me and, as a kid, I never understood why.”
She was 6 when she first became interested in skating. At that age, she had no idea of the financial sacrifices her parents made so that she could fulfill her dream of skating. As she got older, she understood.
Ellis said it was “very expensive to take ice skating to the level of competition.”
“Blades can cost upwards of $1,000,” she said. “Then you have costumes, entry fees, the gear you need like coats, jackets and padding. Then you’ve got to travel to the competitions. There may be five or six a year. Then there are skate boots, which can cost $2,000. As a kid, you’re going through boots like you go through shoes. Then there is coaching, and sometimes you have more than one coach. The ice time can be the most expensive.”
Although she was the only Black skater in her crowd, Ellis said she didn’t experience any negativity. In fact, the white people around her were “All supportive. I made lots of friends. That’s what I want these kids to do.”
The Unity Ice Academy will end on July 30 with a recital.
“The children in the program will showcase everything they learned throughout the month,” Ellis said. “They will perform for donors, friends, family, and members of the community.”
Ellis launched Unity Ice Academy because she wanted to open up access to the sport.
“We just need a start,” she said. “I want to be the beginning of the change.”
“Making a Difference” is a regular feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.