Virlen Reyes is sitting at a two-top at a Starbucks on the quad of West Chester University, where she is a senior. She is in the middle of telling her life story when she pauses.
Her narrative has unraveled during the course of nearly an hour when Reyes, in a quiet, confident voice, has held forth on the circumstances of her remarkable evolution. It's a gripping tale, and Reyes is a capable storyteller. Now, though, caught in the part between her graduation from high school and her college years, her train of thought stalls as a flash of realization crosses her face.
"I'm just … I'm just noticing now how much effort it took not to give up," she said.
Reyes, 21, is tall, lithe and dressed athlete-casual in a West Chester Dri-FIT shirt, thermal black Nike tights, and running shoes. She has the look of a woman in control, which makes the subtle slip in her concentration surprising. Quickly, though, Reyes brushes her springy curls back from her face and resumes her measured, thoughtful tone, diving into how she adjusted to the college lifestyle and the pride she felt at being named captain of her women's' club ice hockey team for her senior season.
The conversation turns to one of Reyes' defining moments. Last winter, her West Chester Golden Rams lifted the Division 2 American Collegiate Hockey Association National Championship, the first in team history.
In the tournament, the Golden Rams didn't make it easy, dropping into deep first-period holes in the semifinal and final. In each case, they rallied, taking the championship trophy after trailing by two goals against Penn State in the final game.
In the retelling, Reyes credits her captain, her teammates and her coaches for the comebacks. She neglects to acknowledge the manner in which those come-from-behind wins fit the pattern developing throughout the conversation.
Reyes, it seems, has been erasing deficits her entire life.
Reyes grew up in a single-parent household, the oldest of three siblings. Her mother, Glenda Rodriguez, whom Reyes counts among her heroes, was 16 when she gave birth to Reyes. Rodriguez worked multiple jobs to support her family while Reyes played surrogate to her younger brother and sister.
Virlen Reyes is an alumna of the Ed Snider Youth
Hockey Foundation. (Click to enlarge)
Courtesy: Jason Linzer
"Seeing her have to work numerous jobs to put food on our table and clothes on our backs really said something to me," Reyes said. "Seeing her have to deal with struggle after struggle after struggle, and overcoming each one at different times in her life, taught me something about life."
Reyes grew up in Kensington, a neighborhood in north Philadelphia known for little aside from drug use, poverty and crime. As a child, Reyes attended Julia de Burgos Elementary, a large school where nearly every student lives at or below the poverty line, according to Philadelphia figures. In a school district hamstrung by budget cuts, school closings and overcrowding, Julia de Burgos stands out as a severe case.
By the time Reyes hit seventh grade, she was very much a product of her surroundings.
"Mom would say to go to school and I would obey that, but I didn't know what going to school meant," Reyes said. "I didn't know that you had to go to school and make sure you were listening. I was going through the motions; I didn't have any aspirations in life."
The wake-up call, as it so often does for the athletically minded, came in gym class. The teacher challenged his students to try "something totally unknown." Reyes said, "Why not?"
Her experiences with ice hockey began. It was 2005, and Reyes would benefit from some good timing.
The 2004-05 NHL season had been lost to labor unrest and a lockout. Ed Snider, owner of the Philadelphia Flyers, spent extensive time during the stoppage incubating an idea to improve the lives of those in his adopted hometown.
The result was the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, an ambitious plan to use his favorite sport to invest in the inner city and create opportunity for under-served Philadelphians.
He was banking that many inner-city youth would, like Reyes, be willing to take a little risk.
At first, Reyes dreaded tying her skates. When she traveled with her classmates to the Penn Ice Rink at the Class of 1923 Arena, one of the foundation's original hubs, Reyes looked on with envy as the Mites laced their size-4s with ease.
"I remember falling a lot," Reyes said. "I couldn't get the concept of outside and inside edges."
Reyes eventually got her edges, and ambition followed soon after.
When she reached Thomas Alva Edison High School, another challenged city school, Reyes enrolled in Advanced Placement courses. Away from school, she became a leader in the fledgling Ed Snider program.
In a city that graduates 55 percent of its students, Reyes became the first in her family to attend college. She plans to enlist in the Navy after graduation from West Chester in May.
"[The idea of] learning how to learn, I didn't have that," Reyes said of her education prior to the Snider Foundation. "I knew [the ability to learn] was there, the teachers were there, but it had to come from the foundation to get that go-ahead, that realization and that moment of enlightenment. To listen, not just hear, but actually listen to what's going on."
The fact Reyes and subsequent Snider graduates have found an intellectual spark outside the classroom shouldn't come as a surprise. According to Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport in Society, the Snider template makes perfect sense.
Sport in Society is a think tank housed at Northeastern University in Boston and dedicated to leveraging the power of sport to eliminate societal injustices, including bullying, racism and violence.
"What does a classroom look like in the 21st century?" Lebowitz said. "We have a lot of school systems that are broken for the same reason. They can't seem to get a team in, or in some way shape or form they're missing the element of the spark.
"At the end of the day, when I think of sport, I think of it as something that keeps your adaptive learning window open. You're in a space of safety in many respects."
A safe space is not an easy thing to draw up, and it's difficult to implement. How would an urban community, especially one where the majority of residents are African-American and Latino, respond to an outreach program centered on, of all sports, ice hockey?
"When Ed Snider first had the idea that he wanted to create a foundation to allow children, who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to play hockey, the chance to try our sport out …"
Scott Tharp, president of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, stopped mid-sentence, glancing across the table at some of his co-workers seated at a round table at the foundation headquarters, which are tucked into the executive offices adjoining Wells Fargo Center, the home of the Flyers.
Tharp has been down this road before, countless times, asked to explain how ice hockey could take root in inner-city Philadelphia.
So, joined at the table by Jim Britt, the vice president and COO, and development officer Kathy Hanrahan, Tharp did it again, explaining their process; specifically, how the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation responded to critics -- real and imagined -- who said ice hockey would be a non-starter.
According to Tharp, it was a matter of side-stepping an attitude of, "This is a great sport, and your kids should play it." To avoid that fate, the foundation reached out to community leaders, attended town-hall meetings and solicited local input. With this approach, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
After all, here was an athletic program where kids would be given structure and a safe, engaging environment, two factors at a premium in many Philadelphia neighborhoods.
"One reaction that caught me by surprise was, 'We'd love you to come because you're not basketball,'" Tharp said. "Right now, in our city, the public basketball courts are the places where bad things are happening."
The foundation caught what would prove the first of many fortuitous breaks.
In its early days, recruitment reflected the way Reyes got involved. Snider representatives would go into city schools, or to public basketball courts, and see if children wanted to try something completely new. Now, though school outreach is still a recruitment tool, the participants convince their friends, siblings and extended family.
"Every kid we get in, generally, they become the operatives and bring in two or three others," Tharp said. "Our recruiting has become very easy because we now rely on the kids and it's peer-to-peer."
The next break came in 2008, when Snider Hockey brokered an 11th-hour deal to occupy three dilapidated city rinks (the organization eventually would add two more) before they were foreclosed by the city. The resulting public-private partnership allows the foundation to offer its services in the neighborhoods of the city's most at-risk children.
Some of the rinks used by the Snider Foundation were not fully enclosed; often one or more sides were protected by little more than a chain-link fence. In the throes of winter, skaters would need heavy coats and hats to brave the elements. The before-and-after photos of the rinks are startling.
Reyes could not believe the transformation of Scanlon Ice Rink, located close to her Kensington neighborhood, after the repairs were finished.
"I remember my coach giving me the address for Scanlon and looking at it and saying, 'There can't be a rink in North Philly. That's where I live!'" Reyes said. "But they rebuilt that thing to make it spectacular. I remember roofs falling down, water coming in because there weren't any windows, everything."
A total of $14.5 million was invested to rehabilitate the ramshackle properties, according to Tharp. The money came from a combination of city, state and Snider funds. Snider has committed $56 million more to operating its programs during the course of the 20-year agreement signed with the city.
Where there once were a handful of regular skaters, now hundreds fill the sign-up sheet.
Nine years after its founding, the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation is the gold standard for inner-city hockey programs. Initially centered on ice hockey, the program has expanded to include academic, life skill, mentorship and nutritional offerings.
The academic side has taken precedence. Aides, tutors, life-skill instructors and mentors outnumber hockey personnel by a 4-to-1 margin. The foundation requires students maintain good academic standing. Regular report-card reviews, attendance checks, and after-school tutoring come before the on-ice practices. In exchange, the program subsidizes equipment, ice time and travel costs.
"The one common thread we had in all the neighborhoods we went to was the epidemic dropout rate in the city," Tharp said. "The plan we have is not rocket science: Get the kids to go to school every day, get them to do their homework assignments in a timely fashion, and they're going to matriculate."
Part-time academic aide Nora Cothren, who works with Snider members after school every weekday at the Laura Sims Rink in West Philadelphia, said the organization's commitment to each student is what stands out about the program.
"One of the things I really like about Snider Hockey is that they won't kick kids out for having bad grades," Cothren said. "If kids are failing classes or getting D's, they'll be required to come in and do a certain amount of tutoring prior to skating in the games. It's more of a, 'Oh, we see you're struggling, here is our support,' rather than kicking them out. That's when kids need you the most, the ones who are struggling."
By all available metrics, the plan has worked.
Snider Hockey graduates 99 percent of its seniors, and 95 percent of the students demonstrate better-than-average attendance, according to figures compiled by the foundation. By attacking dropout rates and attendance deficiencies with the same vigor as it coaches man-advantage situations and forechecking strategies, Snider Hockey is providing an invaluable service, said education reformer Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia.
"What we've seen in our research is that a child needs two things to stay in school," Wise said. "The first is an engagement with the schoolwork; the second is what I call resilience, or grit. A program like [Snider] provides both of those. It provides the encouragement, the mentoring to engage a student, and the second is it provides the development of certain values that contribute to that persistence."
With an exemplary matriculation rate, an enrollment of 3,000, an operating budget of $2.6 million, and nine rinks across the greater Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., area, Snider Hockey has become the banner organization under the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone umbrella.
Hockey is for Everyone includes 30 organizations across North America, with some in relative hockey deserts Raleigh, N.C., Oakland, Calif., and South Daytona, Fla. Many, like Ice Hockey in Harlem in New York City and Hasek's Heroes in Buffalo are taking pages from the Snider Hockey playbook.
Ice Hockey in Harlem recently introduced a College Readiness program, which, like Snider Hockey, takes students on college-tour field trips to encourage a widening of horizons. Hasek's Heroes, named for goalie Dominik Hasek, has teamed with the city of Buffalo to own and operate two rinks and is looking for more ice.
Not only is Snider Hockey the biggest and most influential inner-city hockey program, it's stacked with front-office talent.
Tharp, the president, has made a career out of developing youth sport nonprofits through fundraising and investment. Hanrahan, the development officer, is a former college hockey player at Delaware and recently got her master's in public administration with a focus in nonprofit management. Tarasai Karega, one of seven coordinators of hockey operations, is a graduate of the Detroit Hockey Association (the Motor City's Snider Hockey equivalent) and was one of the first African-American women to win a NCAA title in ice hockey, with Amherst College.
All of these passionate operatives pale, however, to Britt, the vice president and COO of the Snider Foundation.
Over forearm-length cheesesteaks at Tony Luke's, a South Philly institution nestled beneath a highway overpass, Britt preaches the gospel of Ed Snider, a calling he has heeded for close to a decade.
Born and raised in the Philadelphia area, Britt as a teenager attended games regularly during the Flyers' inaugural 1966-67 season and has been a diehard fan since. He played the game, coached youth hockey, and was the coach at Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem, Pa., for nine years.
Britt retired from his coaching post in 2003 and enrolled in the master's program for sport management at Neumann University in Aston, Pa. Shortly after, he joined the Flyers organization as Snider Hockey's first employee.
"The base of what we found was that there were so few opportunities that the kids weren't looking for a specific sport," Britt said, referring to the early community outreach. "They were just looking for an opportunity to do the right thing, an opportunity to make good choices."
He started as executive director and now holds the title of vice president and COO, but, in reality, Britt is more of the resident jack of all trades. He is simultaneously the operations guru, historian, mentor, student adviser and spiritual leader. There from the slipshod beginning, Britt has weathered the critics and crises to see the program become the leader it is today.
Britt talks, in unmistakable Philadelphia gruff, about the program with the passion of someone for whom love has endured. Watching him interact with children and coaches at the rink, tousling hair and inquiring about report cards and recent tournament results, it's clear that for Britt, Snider Hockey is less a second career and more an abiding passion.
"The misunderstanding is that it's a linear process," Britt said, referring to the program's brand of youth development. "You know, here's a checklist, you do the checklist and that's a guaranteed success. That's such a crock. As we all know as adults in life, it's a labor-intensive mentoring process. It never stops, whether children are 8 years old, 16 years old, 32 years old; it's a labor-intensive mentoring process."
Every day, in some of Philadelphia's most disadvantaged areas, part-time coaches, volunteer mentors and academic tutors are performing that labor-intensive work of shaping young lives.
Across the Delaware River from shimmering Center City, Philadelphia's ode to financial recovery, sits Camden, N.J. The city has deteriorated from a once-proud industrial center to one of the country's most dangerous, depressive urban areas. Crime and poverty soar as graduation rates and city budgets plummet.
Turning off I-676 into the outskirts of Camden, the general takeaway is more despair than danger. On the back roads, the most attractive structure is a waste-management facility. Most shops are either boarded up or barely hanging on. The once-vibrant row houses, ubiquitous in Philadelphia's poorer areas, haven't seen a new coat of paint in years.
Camden's most pressing problem is its youth. Almost 30 percent of the city's residents are under 18, nearly twice the percentage of other severely disadvantaged areas. Fifty-three percent of Camden's students graduate high school, according to numbers released by the New Jersey Department of Education for the 2012-13 school year.
The Flyers Skate Zone at Pennsauken is located a short drive outside the Camden city limits. On the Friday of a tournament weekend, the rink bustled with activity. Mites and Squirts flew around the corridor connecting the entrance and the ice, sporting determined grins and too-large hockey bags, with parents and coaches struggling to keep pace.
A little after 5:30 p.m., the puck dropped on an Under-9 game between a Snider team and the visiting team. The visitors enjoyed the lion's share of possession in the first period. They eventually scored, and applause rang out from hockey parents who made the trip.
Still, it seemed like the team from Snider had the advantage. Thanks to some Ron Hextall-level goaltending and last-gasp play by the defenders, Snider kept the game closer than it should have been. The parents and caregivers on hand chatted, visibly concerned less with winning than the competition.
Up front, faces against the glass, stood a preteen gaggle of boys. This seemingly rag-tag, ethnically diverse group was an Ed Snider Peewee team, a couple years older and wiser than its counterpart on the ice. The Peewees would play later in the evening, but most of them came to the rink early and were watching the younger group slip and slide across the ice surface.
Parker Chisholm, 11, is in his third year with the program; he has excelled on the ice and off. Chisholm said teamwork was the first thing he learned with Snider.
Asked for his best memory in three years, Chisholm breathlessly recalled a particular competition.
"I played the game where it's the kids versus the coaches," he said. "It's all the kids versus every coach, all on the ice. If there's no goalies, you have to hit post; if there's goalies, it's just regular. It depends. Sometimes the coaches, sometimes they cheat because they think we don't hit the post, but we did."
After some prodding from Britt, Chisholm finally told the story the grown-ups wanted to hear: Last March, Chisholm was one of five Snider Hockey representatives invited to the White House. He took part in a Let's Move Q&A and got to hang with the Los Angeles Kings, who were on hand to meet President Barack Obama as a reward for winning the Stanley Cup the previous June.
Chisholm smiled bashfully and would say only "it was a long way in" to the inner sanctum of the White House.
Chisholm, as a result of his excellent grades, will enroll next year as a sixth-grader at Germantown Academy, one of the best prep schools in the Philadelphia area.
Grace Parker, Chisholm's proud mother, is among Ed Snider's biggest fans.
"Mr. Snider doesn't know me, but I'm like his main marketing person," Parker said. "Because as many people as I can tell about the Snider Foundation, I do. And I do that because one, it gets the children off the street. It takes them out of the environment where they may be at harm. Secondly, if you are a child who is struggling in school, the program addresses that with the tutorial piece that they have.
"I just think Snider Hockey is one of the crown jewels of this city."
Back across the Delaware River, past Center City, the Drexel University medical campus and the University of Pennsylvania, lies another of Philadelphia's problem areas. About 30 blocks west of the gleaming Penn bookstore, the hardscrabble streets of West Philadelphia grow far less inviting. There seem to be no bookstores or coffee shops this far west, only gas stations where the provisions and cashier sit behind a partition of protective glass.
Abutting Cobbs Creek Park, a twisting 700-acre nature preserve on this western edge of Philadelphia, is Laura Sims Skate House, one of the five city rinks leased and operated by Snider Hockey. For Michael Chism, the skate house, and Snider Hockey, was something more like salvation.
Chism, 21, is a Snider Hockey alum and a junior at Albright College in Reading, Pa. He was back in Philadelphia on Friday night to give a talk to the younger kids about nutrition. (The program escalated its nutritional curriculum in 2013 as part of a partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.) With a laugh, Chism admitted he still has a sweet tooth, but between his approaching speech, offseason football practice at Albright and class, that's the least of his worries.
Chism grew up blocks from Laura Sims Skate House. He knows from experience the pull of the streets and what can happen if there's no attempt to get out.
"You can get stuck in those neighborhoods forever," Chism said. "That's why I stress to kids in my high school and my nieces and nephews that if you don't do anything, you're going to get stuck here. It's no good."
Chism added hockey to his activities when he was 14 at the prodding of a friend.
"At first I thought, 'Ice hockey?'" Chism said. "Because I'm a football player, but I was like, 'Ice hockey, yeah, OK; I'll try it.' The first time I tried it, I kept falling."
Chism quickly fell for the sport, spending hours every week on his street with a stick and a net, working on his wrist shot.
"I didn't really care what people thought about what I was doing," Chism said. "It was something I liked that could keep me busy. As a youth, it kept me focused. I knew I had to get my schoolwork done to play hockey. Having a sport is good for inner-city kids, because if you don't keep busy you'll get lost out here in the streets."
Reyes already possesses a lifetime's worth of defining moments, which begs the question: Which one means the most?
It turns out her proudest moment wasn't winning the national championship with West Chester. It wasn't playing in tournaments across Philadelphia and beyond with her Snider Hockey teams, nor was it the first time she lugged her and her brother's hockey bag, at the same time, onto the bus for Snider practice. Those moments enriched her life, but none quite rise to the level of top billing.
Ed Snider coaches and players pause practice to pose for a photo at Laura Sims Skate House. (Photo: Jason Linzer)
"The day I signed up for the foundation has to be close," Reyes said, "because everything after that has been amazing. Signing that consent form, that was my moment. It changed the way I think about education, the way I think about friendship, trust, about being a leader, just, everything. It's everything that I am."
Reyes is happiest now when she's back on the ice in Kensington, at Scanlon Ice Rink. Competing is meditative for her, but coaching at Snider Hockey is just plain fun.
"They're ecstatic, they're determined, they're funny," Reyes said of her players. "They come from an area that's known for poverty and hardships, but when we hit the ice, we're joking with each other and making fun of one another."
Reyes is often blown away by the determination and responsibility of the teenagers, insisting they are far ahead of where she was at that age. The youngest ones, though, still provide the most entertainment.
"They say their equipment is their superhero costume," Reyes said. "It gets me happy to see they're starting to see themselves as superheroes. They're able to do these unimaginable things. They're developing these skillsets that will take them far in life. They see themselves as something beyond what they are."
Superheroes may still be the realm of Marvel Comics and Hollywood blockbusters, but regular heroes might be the business of the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation. Most days, you can find a bunch of them in the greater Philadelphia area. They'll be the ones handing out sticks, skates and an opportunity for success.