Community Service?

Earlier this year, nominations were supposed to go out for people who did things more than to simply further their career, aka “community service.” I thought about my life. What do I do? A lot. For whom? Well, depends on how you look at it.

Last year, I had thought about volunteering at the local no-kill shelter after my best cat died. This place has “cat apartments,” which is a building filled with rooms of kitties put together based on their personalities or something like that. Feral cats with feral cats; cats who need to lose weight with other chunkies (called “The Biggest Loser Room”); cats who like other cats together; cats who are bitchy apart; and so on.

I get too busy, though. Sure, lame cop out, but I didn’t want to volunteer for something when my schedule changes literally three times a year. So, I kept thinking. Do I do anything for the community?

Oh! I do. Here is the letter I submitted (with omissions) and, though I never heard back and maybe my application was laughable (this was written after not sleeping for 52 hours, so, yeah, I do get a bit busy), I believe it. Mostly because I am usually correct, so why would I be wrong, now?

For nearly three years, I have been an active member of a women’s flat track roller derby league[]. Even though roller derby became most popular in the 1960s for providing fast-paced, brutal entertainment, which was often staged, that version of the sport is considered dead. During the early 2000s, women across the country began grass-roots movements to bring roller derby back from its 30-year hiatus as a true competitive sport without all the crowd-pandering antics, and an emphasis on female empowerment. While it may sound strange to claim one has served the community via a team sport, there is a lot more to modern roller derby than most people know.

Roller derby has become the fastest growing sport in the United States and, alongside its development, a unique community formed. It has become so popular because it offers several exceptional benefits to the players and the community.  As mentioned before, there is a strong emphasis on female empowerment in every aspect. Roller derby players come from all walks of life and the [local] league has a fairly typical amalgam of undergraduate and graduate students, professors, nurses, bankers, retail saleswomen, stay-at-home-moms, and anything in between.

Roller derby inspires people, especially young women, to exercise, exert themselves, set and achieve short and long-term goals, and work in a team atmosphere. These activities are not necessarily something women find good outlets for on a regular basis, let alone one outlet that can provide so many different benefits. Obviously, as a sport, roller derby involves rigorous physical exercise, but as a league, it also offers the benefits of community, which fosters friendship and emotional support. In this community, women in so many walks of life have found companionship and encouragement, as well as a sense of physical accomplishment through simple exercise and participation in a team sport, which often involves traveling to bouts and tournaments, as well as winning awards. The roller derby community is an anomaly in the world of team sports, as skaters adopt pseudonyms and often an on-track persona to coincide with it. This may seem strange to some, but in doing so, women may find strength in their derby persona, which begins to manifest in their daily lives.

Aside from the overarching benefits roller derby provides many communities, [our league] is a 501 C3 not-for-profit organization and has participated in raising money and awareness for local women’s shelters in the past. As a not-for-profit, each member pays dues based on their position in the league, which makes each skater a partial owner. Each skater is also an active participant in running the league and is part of one of the many committees that work together to organize events. By being a partial owner and organizer of the league, members are inspired to do their best to ensure its success, which offers its own sense of accomplishment. Members of [our league] have also been given opportunities that would not be available otherwise, which not only gives the league and its members a feeling of pride, but also [aids the community in some area one might not suspect, such as tourism and education]. A few examples are [league members] being featured in [a local magazine], which is available at many tourism offices around town; being cast in [] a film sponsored by [the university], which was part of the final project of a film studies class and allowed students the opportunity to work on a live set, alongside a small, professional film crew to gain hands-on experience; and the extremely common example of being interviewed, photographed, or recorded as part of journalism student’s project for class.

I joined the [the league] as an official in April 2010, as I was looking for an active community outside of work and school, as well as a fun way to exercise. For two and a half seasons, I served as the Head Non-Skating Official (NSO) and organized the paperwork and people necessary to run home bouts. For nearly the same amount of time, I skated as a referee at home and away bouts. This position requires that I not only monitor the bouts and make sure the skaters are following the rules, but also that I pay close attention to the actions of the skaters for their own safety. For two years, I served as the Vice President, which is a highly involved position, requiring that I vote even on the smallest of matters, but also working on interpersonal relationships between the skaters when problems arose.

Though these positions may sound detached, every aspect of roller derby has a personal level. Serving as Head NSO has certainly been my most involved and rewarding position with the league, but I have also enjoyed the opportunity to mentor new skaters on technique and often will stop my drills to do so. In the same vein, I have actively encouraged new referees in their pursuits, as it is likely the hardest position to get used to or perform in derby, or most any sport.

[I am aware that I sound extremely egotistical in the following paragraphs; this is supposed to be an essay about me, though, and most of it addresses the “yay” of derby, so excuse me while I toot the fuck out of my own horn; I am actually quite gracious to have had this experience] As the Head NSO, I successfully resurrected one of the most integral parts of public bouts, which also sounds like the least fun: paperwork. Prior to taking this position, the league had not had an Head NSO for several seasons, and skaters who were mostly untrained in NSO duties with little concern for the officials were often reluctantly put in the position of organizing the sixteen people required (recently, the required number has dropped because of a change in the ruleset). I found that it wasn’t necessarily the position an NSO assigned that caused people to not volunteer; it was the isolated nature, as the NSO would not be in the throng of cheering fans or excited skaters, but quietly off to the side, performing essential duties. The NSOs were often put into positions with little guidance and no one to look to.

With this in mind, I made sure that every bout I organized involved appropriate recognition, encouragement, and training of the NSOs for every bout. This mission began with silly notes recruiting volunteers for the positions, offering high fives and funny, yet impossible, rewards for those who helped out. Over the years, I found humor and appreciation built a solid base of volunteers for the positions. Most of the volunteers are new skaters who barely know anyone and are just getting used to the atmosphere of roller derby.

Because of this, I made sure to pay special attention to these volunteers, encouraging them to do their best and reassuring them that, even if they made an error, doing their best was perfect in my eyes. While the reward of knowing I was helping people find their place in roller derby, I must admit that taking this stance was the cause of me spending many long nights searching for corrections to errors, but it was worth it. Over time, I found new ways to support these volunteers by creating a special, handmade award for the best NSO each season (which was an award that had never been given in our league, though the skaters are eligible every bout, as well as at the yearly awards ceremony) and trinkets during special occasions, as well as offering a clinic specifically for our own NSOs, as many of them cannot afford the national clinics.

Aside from the experiences of being in trained and elected positions to help further the league, there is a very personal aspect to roller derby, which has appealed to me more than anything else: watching other women discover something inside themselves that they didn’t realize was there. I have watched shy women find themselves; body-conscious women realize their beauty; women from emotionally unstable backgrounds find solid ground; and women with low self-esteem realize their worth.

This is not to say roller derby is a band of misfits, by any means, but there is something amazing about witnessing women striving towards a better self together, no matter their life or background. Due to the popularity of women’s roller derby and the advent of junior roller derby leagues, younger and younger women are becoming motivated towards these same positive and healthy ends. No matter the age, though, roller derby is a positive aspect of many women’s lives, even in a college town in the middle of [BFE], and I have been honored to be a part of this league, as well as these women’s lives.


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