School Is In Session

Miracles On Ice Camp Teaches Kids Confidence On And Off The Ice

 

Pens, paper, rulers and hand-sized pencil sharpeners are scattered across desks inside two makeshift classrooms at the University of Denver’s Magness Arena. For the moment, skates, sticks, helmets and pucks have been pushed aside as the pristine ice sheet sits dormant.

It’s a little after 9 in the morning as another day begins at the Miracles on Ice Hockey camp. Before long, Manuel, one of 32 inner-city kids from around Denver, runs to the front of the classroom with a big smile of success spread across his face after solving his third word problem of the day. He proudly shows his latest accomplishment to Jeff Neises and eagerly waits for confirmation that he has correctly solved the puzzle. Neises enthusiastically offers his young student a congratulatory high five and fist pound.

“This is extremely valuable for these kids,” said Neises, who is one of roughly 60 volunteers who have surrendered part of their summer vacations to work at this year’s camp.

“The more you are exposed to the value of education early in life the better. It definitely pays dividends down the road.”

Leslie Howard couldn’t agree more. She, along with her husband Gary, founded the weeklong camp six years ago to provide youngsters like Manuel with an opportunity to excel in the classroom by enhancing their math and reading skills.

“Some of these kids just don’t have the support at home for homework help and parental involvement,” she said. “We’re helping them all we can and you can see huge progress even from Monday to Friday on their improvement on math and reading.”

In the math room the kids are being asked to solve word problems featuring bullfrogs and tree frogs while also having highly engaging team multiplication table competitions.

Neise, who teaches science at Overland High School in suburban Denver, has been impressed by the students’ engagement, enthusiasm and skill level.

“They haven’t been resistant to doing math and they have been excited and open to learning new things,” he said.

Elsewhere inside Magness Arena, the home of the DU Pioneers, Jill Bould is leading a reading class that is putting the finishing touches of their stories.

Bould teaches social studies at Overland High School and has seen first-hand the struggles some of Denver’s inner city students deal with in the classroom. That’s why she loves the 2-to-1 volunteer-to-student ratio, which provides each student with the attention they need to succeed.

“There is no way I could have gotten around to all of the kids to have them read me their story, check their spelling and do all of that stuff,” Bould said. “To have almost one volunteer for every kid is phenomenal. As a teacher I wish I had that everyday in my classroom.”

The classroom sessions are broken up by time spent on the ice where kids learn a game as foreign as anything they may come across in the classroom.

Life skills such as perseverance, hard work, respect, and confidence are being taught in the classroom and on the flip side they can then carry them over into the hockey portion of camp.

“The classroom becomes a key element as to where these kids begin to build confidence,” Gary Howard said. “We work that confidence and it transitions over to the ice. They then can say I can do this. I can skate backwards.”

Ten-year-old Abe Blanco learned how to skate backwards this week and is currently finishing up his story entitled, “The Mysterious Island.” The creative story is about a boy named Abe and his girlfriend Selena Gomez and how they get sucked up into a tornado and brought to a mysterious island.

Thanks to the helpfulness of a series of hockey enthusiasts and volunteers on the ice, Abe has overcome the mystery that once was hockey.

“They are helpful because on the ice they tell you to never give up and they tell you all the strategies they know to help you become successful,” he said.

Abe is one of many campers over the last six years that have gone from never playing hockey, or even ice-skating for that matter, to becoming confident hockey players on the ice.

During the Miracles on Ice Hockey Camp kids such as Abe and Manuel spend roughly two to three hours per day on the ice working on a variety of skills. It starts with the basics, such as skating and the proper way to hold a hockey stick, but by the end of the camp the kids have grown into full-fledged young hockey stars speeding down the ice, deking defenders and ripping slapping shots past newly christened goaltenders.

The campers are then rewarded for their hard work in the classroom and on the ice by playing a full-scaled hockey game on the freshly minted ice at Magness Arena, complete with PA announcements and music, goal horns and a Jumbotron that displays the action on the ice.     

It’s hard to tell who is having more fun during the course of the week, the kids or the small army of volunteers, including former NHL star Peter McNab.

“By Friday you can’t believe this is the same group that staggered on to the ice on Monday morning,” said McNab, a color commentator on Altitude, the broadcast home of the Colorado Avalanche. “They’re passing the puck, they’re skating and they’re having fun.”

When he signed on to help out, McNab’s earliest impressions were that this was another hockey camp. He quickly learned that it is so much more.

“When you go to a hockey camp the best kid is the best kid. Here, with so many things going on, a kid who maybe can’t skate can excel in the dryland training, or maybe is a wiz at math or is a good reader,” said McNab.

“These kids have never played hockey or may not ever going to play hockey again. It’s a way of using hockey to show them what they can accomplish.”

Gary Howard continues to be amazed at the progress being made by the kids, both on and off the ice. He has witnessed kids learn to skate in a matter of minutes or solve a high school level Algebra problem in 15 minutes.

“As you can see by reading these stories [they write] these kids are very creative but are behind in certain [writing] areas. It’s like, ‘Wow,’ and you come away thinking, ‘If I can channel that creativity and continue this education he or she can become a great writer, scientist, or something.’”

After a week of hockey and education the Howards hope these kids take away as much from the classroom as they do from their time on the ice.

“We’re trying to say education and college is important in life going forward,” Leslie Howard said. “If they feel like they can make progress in the classroom this week maybe they will take that to school next year.”

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