BY RANDY SCHULTZ –
Ice Arena’s across the United States suffered greatly during 2020. With the Pandemic raging throughout all 50 states, many arena’s were forced to shut down.
That was not the case with the Cornerstone Ice Arena in Lockport, NY. In the opening weeks of 2020, the arena was operating normally, hosting hockey tournaments, hockey games, ice skating practices, open skating as well as other arena activities.
“We had heard the news regarding COVID-19 and the Pandemic, but we continued to operate as normal,” recalled Shelley Unocic, Executive Director of the Cornerstone Ice Arena, a nonprofit owned and operated facility. “Even as we entered in the month of March we continued operations as normal.
“But that all changed on March 15.”
That was the day Cornerstone Arena, as well as all other arena’s across New York State, closed its doors.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” continued Unocic. “Many figured that when those doors closed it would be many weeks before they might open again.”
But within 24 hours after Cornerstone Arena closed its doors, Unocic received a phone call from the Eastern Niagara Hospital.
“We were notified by ENH for need of a child care alternative,” stated Unocic. “When we closed our doors many other facilities in the area closed as well and that included day care facilities.
“A day care facility was needed for the Lockport area. I talked to my staff, as well as well as other county officials.
“In the end we collaborated with the YMS (Youth Mentoring Services) and reopened our doors on March 23 to take in children of essential workers.”
Cornerstone Arena had been awarded a grant, “Cornerstone Arena Summer Adventures,” that offered a free-play program within the building for area summer programs back in 2018 and 2019, at no cost to the user.
YMS utilized this opportunity several times to enhance their youth program. This initial partnership resulted in conversations that led to several other programs over the years.
Now, because of the Pandemic, Cornerstone Arena and YMS came together again during what normally would have been the busy hockey and ice skating season at the Arena.
“We combined our resources to offer emergency childcare for children of essential workers and developed a program called “Step Up,” recalled Unocic. “YMS provided the childcare programming while Cornerstone Arena provided a clean facility with plenty of space to keep everyone safe.”
“Step Up” began March 23, seven days after the initial call for help was received. Children attended five days per week (Monday through Friday) from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.
The program continued through the end of the 2019-20 school year, and then for another eight weeks in the summer of 2020. When the 2020-21 school year began the need for “Step Up” grew as services broadened beyond essential workers to all families in the community.
And due to its continued success, additional grant funds were obtained to operate the program through August 2021.
But Cornerstone Arena wasn’t finished helping out during the COVID-19 crisis. They partnered with ENH and NCDOH to be an emergency morgue site. One sheet of ice was kept active as part of the County Crisis Management plan. Fortunately the facility never had to be used as a morgue.
Skaters were welcomed back on July 6, 2020, but only on a limited capacity.
Cornerstone Arena partnered with Niagara County Employment Services to offer space for them to counsel and meet with young adults in their Workership program.
The Arena was also the host site for “Connect Life,” for blood and plasma donations, with the first drive being held on March 20, 2020.
The Arena was also the host site for CCCS of Buffalo to be the Lockport site for free tax preparation and filing help for city residents.
To date, things have gotten back to “normal,” whatever normal is these days with hockey and ice skating going on a daily basis.
But for those early dark days of 2020 when the pandemic was hitting its peak, it was good to know that an ice arena stepped up to the plate to serve the community.
“While other arenas shut down totally during the pandemic, the Cornerstone Arena was operating every day,” concluded Unocic. “Thanks to the great efforts of our staff, as well as everyone else who helped out, this arena became a bright light of hope during some pretty dark days.”