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How a Roller Derby Team, Supported by Penn Medicine CAREs, Promotes Community and Kindness

Faith Cortright speaking with the Philly Roller Derby Junior team members at a practice
Photo credit: Peggy Peterson

By day, Faith Cortright is a clinical research coordinator for the Perelman School of Medicine. Outside of work, she’s known as “Devoida Mercy,” a former roller derby skater for Philadelphia’s Liberty Belles adult All-Stars team, now serving as coach to the Philly Roller Derby Juniors.

When you think of roller derby, you may think of packs of skaters racing around a track, blocking and shoving their opponents to prevent them from passing. Each player using a unique, but fierce alias like Cortright’s, or like the character “Babe Ruthless” in the 2009 roller-derby-centered movie “Whip It.” And although skaters get plenty knocked down playing the sport, known for its full-contact activity, the Philly Roller Derby Juniors team is all about lifting up its teammates and offering a supportive community.

Philly Roller Derby Juniors is comprised of kids aged 6 to 18 years old, ranging from beginners with no skating experience, who participate in games within their own league, to the highly skilled All-Stars travel team. This past July, the All-Stars attended the 2022 Junior Roller Derby Association Championships in Phoenix, Arizona, taking home the team’s first gold medal and title as the top open-gender junior roller derby team in the country.

“It was a whirlwind of magic. It was the best feeling,” Cortright said. “When you ask the kids about their teammates, they describe them as family. As a coach, that’s the best thing you can hear from an athlete. They accomplished this all as a family.”

Launching the League

Faith Cortright at a Philly Roller Derby Juniors team practice
Photo credit: Peggy Peterson

Established in 2014, the league was developed by Cortright and her wife, who met while playing on the Liberty Belles. After competing in a Colorado scrimmage, Cortright saw a team of children enter the track to practice for their own upcoming game. “They played by the same rules, were given the same penalties in a jam (a round in a game). We saw the tears when they were sent to the penalty box and told they couldn’t play anymore. We knew we had to get a team like this going in Philly,” she said.

Roller Derby Juniors initially began as female-only, but in its second year, the coaches opened up the league to be open-gender.

“While sports tend to be divided, you’re not going to see that division in your everyday lives. You’re going to meet and work with all types of people,” said Cortright. “Having this all-inclusive environment allows our skaters to build strength and leadership skills, which they can carry with them throughout their lives. Every player brings something special to the game, and roller derby gives them something in return.”

For Solvej Berman, also known as “Oy Vej,” a 17-year-old captain of the All-Stars travel team, roller derby has allowed her and her teammates to become themselves and feel confident in their own skin. When Berman joined in 2016, she initially felt intimidated by the competitiveness of the sport. However, she quickly became comfortable due to the kindness she witnessed among teammates, motivating each other to learn new skating skills and boosting each other’s self-esteem.

“We encourage everyone to be whoever they want and identify however they want. We have unconditional love for everybody,” said Berman. “At my school, I’m not exposed to much diversity, but this team is very open and welcoming to all.”

Helping Others in a Jam

Philly Roller Derby Juniors team members at a practice
Photo credit: Peggy Peterson

As the league continued to develop, the coaches observed the need to have rental skates to skaters who did not have access to their own pair. In 2019, Cortright applied for and was awarded a grant from the Penn Medicine CAREs program. The CAREs program provides funding for staff and their community initiatives across the regions Penn Medicine serves, including both regional and international efforts. Through the grant, the league was able to build a lending library with extra skates and gear of all sizes.

This year, the league received another Penn Medicine CAREs grant to support membership fees and costs of transportation. Over the past few years, many households experienced the economic impact of the pandemic, resulting in unemployment and need of financial assistance. Supported by the CAREs grant, skaters can apply for a one-time gift to help cover fees.

“We don’t want to turn someone away from something they love. This grant allows the kids to keep skating and keep them involved with the team as the economy continues to stabilize,” Cortright said.

On a Roll

One unique outcome of the pandemic was an increase in popularity for roller skating. At the peak of the pandemic, when organized group activities and events were on hold, many people began to explore new hobbies, taking up roller skating as a way to get outside and stay active, Cortright explained.

Roller Derby Juniors garnered more attention due to this renewed activity, and also for its new championship title. After its win, the team was featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and received a shout-out on social media from Mayor Jim Kenney, which also led to an increase in interest from families in the community.

“The fact that a sport like this, that’s not entirely mainstream, has received this type of attention has been fantastic and makes us feel proud,” said Cortright. “We had a lot of interest prior to the tournament, but I’m excited to see how the team will continue to grow.”

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