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Gloveless in the brisk cold, Stephon Miller is making careful strokes of bright orange paint in a straight line across the ice rink, forming a goal line. 

Miller, 23, was one of a dozen volunteers at Clark Park on Tuesday helping to prepare for the park’s ice rink reopening, nearly two years after it closed because of the pandemic. This two-year hiatus was the longest period the rink has ever been closed in decades.

“This is where I started,” said Miller, who grew up in the neighborhood and found his love for hockey at Clark Park when he was 10. “I’m not obligated to do it, but a part of me wants to come back and help. They put in the time for me, so I felt like I should return the favor.”

Volunteers work to paint lines while setting up the ice rink at Clark Park in Detroit to open after a two-year pandemic hiatus on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.

The park, with a litany of organized sports and community events, keeps kids out of trouble, Miller said. It’s what kept him out of going down the wrong path, he said, and for that he’ll always cherish his second home. Miller now plays hockey for Central Michigan University.

“It’s the centerpiece of southwest Detroit,” Miller said. 

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The effects of the rink’s closure, especially during the early days of the pandemic when social gathering was risky and rules were uncertain, were felt all around the community, said Anthony Benavides, the director of the Clark Park Coalition. 

“The rink/Clark Park is town square in this community,” Benavides said. “Everybody centers around Clark Park.”

Clark Park Coalition board member Glenn Rojo volunteers while painting lines for the ice rink as volunteers work to get the ice rink at Clark Park in Detroit ready to open after a two-year pandemic hiatus on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.

Getting the rink into skating shape is a days-long process — weather permitting — of pouring layer after layer of water and waiting for each to freeze before pouring the next. Volunteers from the early morning came to assist with painting lines and cleaning the ice Tuesday. Benavides predicts the rink will be ready for the public on Jan. 12.

The tireless work of the volunteers is proof of the community’s investment in the park and the vital role it plays in generations of residents’ lives, Benavides said. And its reopening comes at the perfect time.

“I just can’t wait to get the kids out of the house and let them do something in recreation or exercising,” he said. “Playing hockey and learning and seeing their friends on the rink,  that’s going to bring some joy to the family and the kids.”

John Kraft, right, of Michigan CNG Systems, works to paint lines on the ice with Zachary Benavides, of Detroit, while getting the ice rink at Clark Park in Detroit ready to open after a two-year pandemic hiatus on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.

Clark Park is where kids spend endless summer days and later bring their own kids to enjoy the park’s programming, it’s where people come and stay. Bill Deuparo, 80, grew up just a couple blocks away from the park in the 1950s and has stayed in the neighborhood since. 

Benavides called Deuparo the volunteer of the century. He has been helping out at the park’s rink for 30 years as a way to keep busy after retiring from General Motors in 1996, but the last two years have left him stiff and aching for activity, he said.

“I just like to help out, my whole family was like that,” Deuparo said, adding that he’s excited to reopen the rink and get kids back on the ice. “The kids, you’d be surprised, but it’ll be 10 degrees out and we can’t get them off the ice. I’ve had to turn out the lights a couple times.”

Volunteers paint lines on the ice while working to get the ice rink at Clark Park in Detroit ready to open after a two-year pandemic hiatus on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.

The dedication of volunteers is a reflection of the park’s role in the community, Benavides said, and temporarily closing it in March 2020 was heartbreaking. 

“They (volunteers) see the importance of opening this place up, it’s getting back to normal,” Benavides said. “Maybe they want to see it because they want to participate or their family, but they actually want to see something thrive in the city here and at Clark Park.”

The grand reopening of the Clark Park ice rink is scheduled for 2 p.m. Jan. 12. Skating, and all park programming, is free for children and $5 for adults, including skate rental.

Contact Miriam Marini: [email protected]

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