Imani Moody admits to stumbling upon the sport of ice hockey as a fifth grader growing up in inner-city Washington, D.C.
The experience was so memorable and life-altering it eventually led him to New Jersey Goals Ahead, a program founded in 2004 to provide financially challenged children in Newark with an opportunity to learn and play the sport as he did.
"We operate across three different public schools in Newark and have about 50 kids who participate in our sessions," said Moody, the program's chairman. "We're taking kids in the second and third grade, offering them a chance to learn to skate and stick-handle, introducing them to the sport, and instilling the discipline and character that's associated with it."
Funds raised through golf outings and other events go toward securing transportation, insurance and ice time. Volunteer coaches and staff are vital to the program, which holds on-ice sessions at Richard Codey Arena in West Orange, N.J., and at Union Sports Arena.
"Our greatest challenge has been ice time," Moody said. "Travel teams and figure-skating clinics establish their schedule years in advance, but we don't have the luxury to look that far. But 98 percent of the kids in our program come from the most underserved and economically challenged areas of Newark."
Moody said participants in the NJGA program have gone to Lake Placid, N.Y., joined the Canadian Hockey Enterprises for clinics, and have traveled to Buffalo to participate with other partners in the Hockey Is For Everyone program.
"Our kids have moved on and played well in high school and college preparatory schools," Moody said. "The thing is, we know the best days are ahead. We're seeing our numbers increase and seeing the love for the game and what it all entails. It's been a labor of love for all of us involved, for sure."