Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award Finalist: Estela Rivas-Bryant

The Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award presented by Discover is given to an individual who, through hockey, has positively impacted his or her community culture or society. The award honors O'Ree, the former NHL forward who became the first Black player to play in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958, and has spent more than two decades as the NHL's diversity ambassador. After a public voting period and votes from O'Ree, NHL executives and Discover executives, the winner will be announced in June. There will be a winner from the United States and one from Canada. Today, a look at one of three United States finalists, Estela Rivas-Bryant:

Estela Rivas-Bryant views being a finalist for the Willie Community Hero Award as both an honor and an opportunity.

"Having anything with Willie O'Ree's name attached to it is an honor no matter what," Rivas-Bryant said. "But really, for me, I'm so excited that I'm able to be a finalist because no matter what, I know that using where I am now that I'm going to be able to open more doors for our girls.

"So, for me, the joy is in what I'm going to be able to pass forward and keep his legacy going with these girls."

Rivas-Bryant is one of three finalists for the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award in the United States. The winner, who will be named in June, will receive a $25,000 prize to be donated to the charity of their choice, with the other two finalists each receiving a $5,000 prize donated to a charity of their choice. She founded the Empowerment Effect, a non-profit in El Segundo, California, in the fall of 2021 to nurture confidence and a sense of community among girls from underserved communities through ice hockey. 

A first-generation Mexican American, Rivas-Bryant started playing hockey when she was 18 when a friend's son wanted to learn how to play. She decided to go along with him to lessons at Toyota Sports Performance Center, the Los Angeles Kings' practice facility and Learn to Play.


She fell in love with the sport and the connection she felt with the other players and wanted to share that with those who didn't have the opportunity to play it.

"Some of our kids have more heartache than they should," Rivas-Bryant said. "My goal is to always make that hour that they're on my ice and they're with us, the best, most positive hour that they have. If they come to my rink and they're on my ice for an hour, and even if they're struggling but they feel empowered and they feel like that struggle is worth it and they see the progress, that carries over into everything you do."

Rivas-Bryant previously worked for 10 years with the Power Project, a Hawthorne Police Department program in Los Angeles County that similarly mentored young girls through ice hockey, before branching off to start the Empowerment Effect. Run by all-female volunteers (except for Rivas-Bryant's husband Robert and 15-year-old son Lucas), the Empowerment Effect has a roster of 34 girls ages 7-16 and a waiting list of 30 more while Rivas-Bryant and the program's board of directors seek additional funding for equipment and ice time.

Rivas-Bryant began with a Zoom meeting with 36 players from two women's hockey leagues she played in, asking for investments and volunteers, and came away with $5,000 in initial funding. She also received immediate and recurring support from the Kings, who have included players from the Empowerment Effect at events celebrating Black history in addition to their Women's History Night and Mexican American Night and supplemented the program's funding with a $15,000 grant earlier this season.

"Here in Los Angeles, we have a ton of great programs that Estela works closely with, and we've developed a bunch of friendships," said Kings vice president of community relations and team services Jennifer Pope. "She completely fits the model and everything that Willie stands for and everything that the League and the LA Kings stand for. We're proud of her, we're proud of the girls, we're proud of her staff, and we look forward to seeing the program grow throughout the years."

Like all Empowerment Effect staff members, Rivas-Bryant takes no salary and puts her own money into the program along with countless hours inside and away from the rink while somehow balancing that with her day job as a production manager on sports documentaries.

"I don't sleep much," he said. "I'm big on napping. It's a village. Our board of directors, we all have superpowers. … I have a lot of support and a lot of help from my volunteers."


Rivas-Bryant, who previously worked as the longtime production coordinator on "Keeping up with the Kardashians," has formed connections with the players in the program and their families. Rivas-Bryant said about 90 percent of the players are Hispanic, about 50 percent speak Spanish and about 20 percent only speak Spanish, so it is helpful that she and other volunteers also speak Spanish.

Maria Ozuna, among multiple people to nominate Rivas-Bryant for the Willie Community Hero Award, met her 12 years go through daughter Dibina, a goalie with the Empowerment Effect team who played previously in the Power Project. When Maria was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer three years ago, Rivas-Bryant helped her get into the City of Hope cancer treatment center in Duarte, California, sometimes taking her to appointments as well as attending Dibina's school events.

"If they're doing stuff like that for me, I know they're doing stuff like that for the other parents," Ozuna said. "This is a woman that loves her sport and wants to bring a strong community or like she calls is, 'her village.' 

"This is her village. This is her family. She says community equals family, family equals community. So, we're a community, we're a family, and it's not just for certain people. She's open to so many people."

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