About eleven years ago, I was skating at Sky Rink, when it used to be on 33rd Street in Manhattan. (Subsequently, Sky Rink made its new home on 23rd Street, at a sports complex called Chelsea Piers.) At the "Old Sky Rink," which is what we call it now, I sometimes saw a woman who would be leading a group of young African American girls in a skating program. I used to watch them rehearse and wondered who they were.
Fast forward eleven years later, and here I am at Riverbank State Park Skating Rink in Upper Manhattan talking to the woman who was leading the girls -- Sharon Cohen, Founder and Executive Director of Figure Skating in Harlem ("FSH"). FSH is a not-for-profit organization that was formed in 1997 by Sharon and as she describes it, "by accident." Sharon grew up skating in Delaware, and after she received her gold medal in figures and free style, she went off to Brown University to study filmmaking, thinking that her skating days were behind her. After college, she moved to New York City, got a job at CBS News and learned of an after school hockey program in east Harlem that she wanted to be involved in. They asked her if she could, instead, teach figure skating to some of the girls, who were not interested in hockey. Sharon agreed and from 1990 - 1996, taught figure skating to hundreds of girls in the Harlem community. During those six years, she realized how important skating was to her girls and how much it instilled a great sense of work ethic, discipline and pride, which extended to other aspects of their lives.
Sharon was determined to create a program that would combine figure skating with education and mentoring in what she believed was a unique way to develop and educate young girls. In 1997, Sharon and a group of parents banded together to form FSH. FSH started with 30 girls, and today, there are over 125 girls in the program ranging in ages from 6 to 18, with a waiting list of over 100! Sharon also has a staff of 30, which includes educators, counselors, skating instructors and office personnel. Keep in mind that, when the program first started and when I saw her at the Old Sky Rink, Sharon was the educator, counselor, skating instructor and office personnel, all rolled into one. Sharon told me that all the applicants are interviewed in the fall to participate in the program for the season, and it is a commitment. The girls skate twice a week plus the weekends and for that privilege (I've always considered skating to be a privilege), the girls must maintain a B average in school (report cards are checked regularly) and show a true desire to learn the art of skating by taking skating lessons, dance classes, as well as classes in skating history. In addition to the on ice training, there is mandatory homework period from 4 - 5 p.m. before skating class, and they also take classes in nutrition, financial literacy, public speaking, and participate in career workshops and cultural and educational trips. Tutoring and counseling are also available.
According to Sharon,
This is a girls' development program, so we look at the whole young lady. We care about their grades in school, we teach them about public speaking, we try to expose them to different careers, and we give them counseling. We want them to succeed and go off to Harvard, not just be great skaters.. .We emphasize the education component because that's going to take the kids even farther.
I chatted with Nyasha, age 10, who told me that her favorite trip to date has been spending a day at the Bloomberg Building! She liked "learning about different techniques of selling things and that we pretended we were workers for the day, doing financial things." Isn't that fantastic? I wasn't aware of what exactly "Bloomberg" was until, oh, Michael Bloomberg decided he wanted to run for Mayor of New York.
One of Sharon's goals for FSH is to be able to provide a year round rink and educational facilities for the girls. (Their current outdoor rink turns into a roller hockey rink over the summer.) Sharon is also working to expand the program and it's philosophy to other communities in NYC. Relatedly, another of Sharon's goals is to have more corporate sponsors, in addition to Bloomberg, Macy*s, Kraft, Maybelline, L'Oréal, SoftSheen Carson and The Bank of New York Mellon.
Currently, everyone is busily preparing for FSH's annual recital on April 5 and 6 called Fire on Ice. Each year, a different theme is chosen and for the 2007-2008 season, it's all about Latin heritage and honoring Latin culture. The girls will be skating to, and have been studying, the music of Celia Cruz, Elvis Crespo, and Jennifer Lopez, among others. All the girls in the program are in the show, and costumes for the recital were generously donated and designed by former competitive skater Brenda Lovie of Lovie Couture. Sharon expects over 1200 people to attend the event over the course of two days. There are 11 group numbers planned, including a finale to Ricky Martin's Cup of Life that really does make you jump out of your seat and dance to the music! I watched the rehearsal for the finale number which has most of the girls participating, and it is truly a miracle to have all these girls in sync -- kudos to the skating instructors of FSH! Can't wait for the actual show with full costume! Sharon also hopes that their surprise guest will be able to make it to the recital. She wouldn't divulge the name but gave me a clue that this year's theme is very appropriate to the special guest.
Sharon and the board of directors are also preparing for FSH's fourth annual benefit fundraiser on Monday, March 31, called Skating with the Stars, Under the Stars. The gala event is held at Central Park's Wollman Rink and this year's Honorary Chairs are Whoopi Goldberg, Terry and Tina Lundgren (Terry is CEO of Macy's), and Donald and Melania Trump. At the fundraiser, guests as well as the FSH girls have the opportunity to skate with Olympians and World medalists, including Sasha Cohen, Todd Eldredge, Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman, Jennifer Robinson, Kimmie Meissner, Evan Lysacek, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, Sarah Hughes, Johnny Weir, Timothy Goebel, Viktor Petrenko and many others. The event is also attended by nonskating celebrities such as Kelly Ripa and hubby Mark Consuelos, Vera Wang, Carol Alt, Carson Kressley and the cast from Law & Order SVU, including Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni, B.D. Wong, and Tamara Tunie. At this year's gala, FSH is honoring skating icon Dorothy Hamill. As Sharon explained, "We want to honor her courage and perseverance for all that she's done, not just in skating as a super champion, but as someone who has overcome the odds and really had courage in her life.. .These are traits we want to instill in our kids."
In partnership with FSH, charitybuzz is holding an online charity auction to raise money and awareness for the organization. Bidding ends April 9, and some of the items up for bid: skating lessons with Sasha Cohen, Viktor Petrenko, JoJo Starbuck, tickets to Stars on Ice plus backstage tour, VIP tickets to ESPY awards in Los Angeles, Caribbean vacation packages, and many other amazing items. My personal favorite item up for bid: Lunch with Dick Button. Hm...I might bid on that myself. Charitybuzz will also be present at the Skating with the Stars, Under the Stars gala, so if you're lucky enough to attend, please stop by and bid.
The FSH program ends for the season on May 2, with their awards banquet. Afterwards, Sharon and the staff have a little bit of respite before they begin preparations for the 2008-2009 season. After spending a few hours with Sharon, I was reminded, again, of how unpredictable life is. Eleven years ago, I watched Sharon run through a skating program with a handful of girls and today, she cannot believe that she has returned to skating, running a program this size, combining skating with education, making a difference in so many girls' lives, and charting a plan to expand the program to include more girls in more communities. I'll be attending the Fire on Ice recital and will be back with some great footage. Stay tuned! (Click here for Fire on Ice recital!)