Phyl Newbeck, Contributor
In the late 1990s, René Kaczka-Vallière applied for a job at Boston Common Frog Pond ice rink where he used to skate. Initially, he worked as a skate guard, but his duties expanded to include handing out rental skates and sharpening them. Soon, he was asked to add one more job to his portfolio and after studying the rink’s other Zamboni driver, Kaczka-Vallière took the wheel himself.
A native Vermonter, Kaczka-Vallière’s family moved to Massachusetts when he was 13 but he returned to Vermont when he was 25.
He thought his Zamboni-driving days were over, but in 2019 when his daughter played for the Champlain Valley Union High ice hockey team, he asked if they needed any help.
It had been almost two decades since he last cleaned an ice surface and the rink was significantly larger than his previous place of employment, but Kaczka-Vallière happily jumped back on the Zamboni. He noted that work at Cairns Arena, where the Redhawks play, is more complicated than the Boston Common rink, but he enjoys figuring out how far he should lower the blade and how much water to put down.
Cairns is currently short-staffed, so in addition to his day job, Kaczka-Vallière is spending six hours a day, three days a week at the rink. His daughter only played for one season. Due to a shoulder injury, Kaczka-Vallière hasn’t played hockey since 2007, but he enjoys the work.
“I haven’t felt the need to get back to hockey,” he said. “Driving the Zamboni gives me that hockey energy.”
In addition to his Zamboni chores, Kaczka-Vallière has a full-time job as a social worker. His interest in the field was initially piqued by the social justice community work done by the Episcopal Church he attended during high school.
He got his bachelor’s degree in social work from Wheelock College but after the attacks of September 11, he went to Coventry College in England and obtained a Masters in Peace and Reconciliation.
Kaczka-Vallière started his professional career as a case manager for the Agency on Aging, helping seniors access services and live independently.
“Freedom and independence are important in Vermont,” he said. “We made it possible for people to stay in their homes as long as possible.”
Next, Kaczka-Vallière moved to the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living where he worked on a grant which helped get people out of nursing homes and back into their communities. From there he moved to Adult Protective Services, which is also under the auspices of Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living. His job involved investigating allegations of abuse of vulnerable Vermonters — older people or those with disabilities. The job dealt mostly with perpetrators, putting them on a registry if they were found to have committed offenses.
Hoping to delve deeper into the issues, Kaczka-Vallière began to work with a grant which allows victims of abuse to be involved in a restorative process with the person who did the harm. “It allows the person who was hurt to be heard and maybe have the harm repaired,” he said.
Kaczka-Vallière said that people can be abused by their own family members, with financial abuse particularly prevalent. The grant helps facilitate the payment of restitution. He noted that these situations are not always clearcut because often the perpetrators have also been hurt at some point in their lives.
“You want the needs of the person who did the harm to also be met,” he said, “but you want the behavior to stop.”
If the perpetrator is a professional caregiver, the restitution process allows them to clear their name, so the offense doesn’t show up on their background check. “It’s a path forward to alternative accountability,” Kaczka-Vallière said, noting that each situation is different.
The gratification Kaczka-Vallière gets from his two jobs is very different. “As a social worker, you don’t often see the rewards of the work because it’s very long-term process,” he said, “but Zamboni driving, you see the new ice right away. There is a transformation that you see right in front of you.”
Kaczka-Vallière noted that people often don’t like change, but it’s a part of life. He sees ice resurfacing as a comforting change, somewhat akin to cleaning one’s house.
“It’s a huge sheet of shiny ice,” he said. “You almost don’t want to touch it.”