When Daniel Wall, Wendy Wagner-Satwicz, and a handful of friends started roller-skating together in empty parking lots around Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, Wagner-Satwicz says she thought all it would amount to was "just a few of us weirdos out there."
But a month after Wall and Wagner-Satwicz started a Facebook group called The 78's!! (named after the hardness of the wheels used for outdoor skating), the group has nearly 180 members. And the group's spontaneous outdoor skating gatherings are attracting a variety of area residents, from first-time skaters to derby skaters to a grandmother and her two grandkids.
Wall, a 30-year-old Ypsi Township resident, wasn't always a skating enthusiast. In fact, he first tried skating this July as a way to bond with his sister, Kodi Amritt-Wall, who is known as Jane the Ripper in the Ann Arbor Brawlstars roller derby team.
"We used to play music together, and she'd done a lot in her life to do things I'm interested in, and not vice versa. So this year I got a wild hair and decided I was going to buy some skates and went and skated that day, on my birthday," Wall says. "I am kind of a natural at it and really enjoyed it. From the first day, I was just so in love with it."
Amritt-Wall is the head brewer for North Center Brewing in Northville but also volunteers and does advocacy work in the community, including taking part in a read-along of the graphic novel "Roller Girl" with other derby skaters for the Ypsilanti District Library.
Wall says he wanted to keep skating with his sister without taking her away from her charitable efforts, so he thought he'd "push this all into the same sandwich" by giving back to the community while also having fun skating with friends.
Wall says there hasn't been much community among the wide variety of local skaters, from those who do roller derby to those interested in roller dancing to more casual roller skaters and rollerbladers, and Wall thinks that all those groups can learn from and support each other.
Since Wall's first experience on skates, his vision has expanded to include not only an LGBTQ-friendly "all-wheels-welcome skate collective," but community cleanup projects, advocating for a local outdoor skating rink, and raising funds to help overcome financial barriers for local children who might want to get into skating.
Wall's first forays into combining community service with skating evolved from cleaning up parking lots around Ypsi in order to clear a safe space to skate, something his partner of 10 years, Sarah Vickers, also participated in.
"Pretty soon, he and I had gone to different parking lots around Ypsi picking up glass and trash, and it's come to be just as much about taking care of the community as creating a smooth surface to skate," Vickers says.
Wall enjoyed skating so much that he wanted to start letting other people know the best spots in the area and inviting them to come for some socially-distant outdoor fun. That's when he and Wagner-Satwicz started the Facebook group.
"We thought, 'Let's just make a page, and we can reach out to anyone else out there who wants to join up with us," Wagner-Satwicz says. "... And now it's almost 200 members. That's so crazy that so many people are interested."
The Facebook group has also been a venue for getting out the word about community clean-up projects. Vickers says Wall recently posted in the group that he was planning to pick up trash at Frog Island Park, unrelated to skating, and two group members joined him as a result.
"That's what's so cool, that each time we get together in person, it's a different group of people," she says. "You might see the same one or two faces, but there's always somebody I haven't seen before or that Dan is surprised to see."
Amritt-Wall is hoping to promote roller derby through her participation in the group. She says she often runs into people who don't even realize Ann Arbor has a derby league. Her long-term goal is to start a junior league for kids ages 9 to 17 to participate in roller derby.
"I always thought derby was cool but I didn't really get into it until I moved out on my own. It's been a great community to be a part of, and obviously I want to get as many people into it as possible," she says.
Wall's long-term goal for the group is building an outdoor skating rink in Ypsi or Ypsi Township. He has his eye on a spot next to the Ypsilanti Township CommUNITY Skatepark, but the group has also talked about finding a spot to rehab, like an abandoned parking lot or other flat surface.
He's also interested in raising money to provide skates for kids in the community who might not otherwise have the money to get into skating. Amritt-Wall says derby teams typically have some spare parts lying around, and thinks the group might be able to put together some "gently-used skates" for kids as well.
In the short term, the group has been a blessing to many of its members, creating a sense of community, opportunities for volunteerism, and a chance to get exercise in the fresh air.
"I know what drew me was feeling cooped up in the house because of COVID, and wanting to lose the quarantine weight and the negativity that has surrounded the last seven or eight months," Vickers says. "I find skating really appealing not just for the physicality but the camaraderie as well, and something to look forward to when you're getting out of work or waking up early on the weekend."
She says skating gives her a sense of "freeness and happiness," and she's excited to connect with others who feel the same way.
"A lot of the people I've met expressed a similar sense of gratitude to have this outlet during a dark and strange time," Vickers says.
The Facebook group for The 78's!! is private. Those interested in learning more may request to join the group here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.