'It's a very cool thing': Falmouth ice rink skating program warms hearts
FALMOUTH — An immense building with a frosty interior sits within the heart of the business district.
Despite its massive size, however, it's nearly lost in its surroundings. Thick vegetation obscures three of its sides. The rest is screened from view of U.S. Route 1 by the hulking mass of Wal-Mart.
In fact, a person could easily live in Falmouth for years and never know the Family Ice Center exists.
"We hear that a lot," General Manager Josh Brainerd said. "We're like a hidden gem, but we're trying to make it so we're just a gem."
Family Ice Center, a year-round ice skating rink, is on the tail end of a two-year renovation project to improve the facility, which opened in 1999. The $200,000 project has improved the refrigeration at the year-round facility. They've also added new flooring, new bleachers, a new electric Zamboni and a fresh coat of paint.
"It'll be pretty noticeable," Brainerd said of the improvements.
Brainerd also wants to draw attention to the rink's weekly program called Opportunity Skate, which provides free ice time and skate rentals to organizations that support people with intellectual or physical disabilities, at-risk teens, seniors and more.
Each Thursday, about eight local groups convene on the ice for several hours of free skating. The program is year-round, but its hours expand significantly during the winter, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every Thursday between mid-October and late March.
Opportunity Skate is funded by private and corporate donations, and reduced-cost ice time, but the donations have been dwindling, Brainerd said. It costs about $35,000 to fund the program each year, and lately contributions have been falling short of that goal.
"We try to remind people that we're always accepting donations for this program," he said. "This program is 100 percent funded by donations."
Family Ice Center is a private, nonprofit corporation, which is somewhat unique, Brainerd said.
"We don't have a school or college or city tax dollars feeding us," he said. "There's a reason why most ice arenas are run by colleges, or prep schools or cities. These places are very expensive to run. They're energy hogs. The fuel bills and light bills are astronomical."
Ice time is expensive, Brainerd said. In Maine, the average rate is $225 per hour to schedule games, practices or hold events. That kind of money would be prohibitive for groups that provide day services to clients with intellectual disabilities – groups like Momentum, Creative Trails and Back Bay Connections, which were on the ice in force on a recent Thursday.
Kate Skahan, a direct support professional for Creative Trails, spent about an hour on the ice skating alongside her clients, while pop music blared over the sound system. She said the weekly trip provides a good diversion and exercise, especially during the winter.
"It's also good for people to come out and interact with their peers from other programs," she said.
Julie Stahle, a direct support professional for Back Bay Connections, agreed. She said she's been bringing clients to the rink for seven years.
"It's a very cool thing," Stahle said. "I think it's amazing that these guys can come here for free. You can totally see skating improvement over the season."
George Douglass, 25, is a client of Windham-based Momentum. Every Thursday, he trains in speed skating for the Special Olympics Winter Games.
"And every once in a while, I bump out some dance moves whenever I hear a good song," he said.
Douglass said he's won 28 gold medals, plus some silver and bronze medals, in Special Olympics over the years.
The weekly practice "keeps your skates sharp and your mind sharp," he said.
Brainerd said Opportunity Skate began the same year the Family Ice Center opened, in 1999.
The arena also offers free outdoor skating to every Falmouth resident, as part of a deal that was struck with the town when the corporation acquired the land. The skating pond – a man-made pond that boasts a refrigerated surface – opens yearly in late November.
"It's our way to try to give back to the community," Brainerd said. "We really think of ourselves as a community center. We're not just an ice arena."
Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.
Skate & shop
Family Ice Center will hold a public skating session on Black Friday, Nov. 29, from 2:10-4:10 p.m. Parents are encouraged to drop off children at the rink, so they can shop locally. For more details, visit familyice.org.