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Finding the Family 

Roller derby badasses by day, supportive moms by night

Being a single mom has been anything but easy for 24-year-old Brieanna Shelton.

At Bend High, she found herself a part-time teen rebel, spending days singing in the school choir and doing homework, and nights hanging out in sleazy hotel rooms with dropouts and druggies.

By the summer after graduation, she was broke, and an addict with a visit to a psyche ward on her résumé, and a serious drinking problem.

She entered her first rehab program in Palm Springs in 2008 on the recommendation of her parents.

"I wanted to get sober and I wanted a different life," said Shelton. "My routine was to wake up late in the afternoon, pop some pills, smoke some weed, and drink whatever we had in the house. Then I would go out to the bars until 7 am. I was in some bad situations with some bad people."

Things didn't get easier from there. After two months of sobriety—in the middle of working on her recovery—she became pregnant by another recovering addict she had met in AA.

It is her buoyancy and determination to make a better life for herself and her child-to-be that kept Shelton positive despite the father's non-involvement.

"He wasn't ready to be a dad, but I chose to keep the baby," Shelton explained in her post-practice derby garb, a pair of ripped fishnets, with yellow short-shorts and knee socks adorned with her signature bumblebees (her derby name is KillHer Bee). Her 2 1/2 year-old son, Ronnie, giggles ecstatically as he chases ducks on the grass behind us. "It was a big decision," she continued, keeping a constant eye on Ronnie's meanderings. "Everyone told me I shouldn't go through with it, but I never regretted my choice."

Four months' pregnant, Shelton moved back to Bend, struggling with depression and newly found and tentative sobriety.

"I didn't feel like I had a purpose," she said. "I didn't fit."

But after Ronnie was born, Shelton said her perspective changed.

"I had to make healthy choices—if not for me, then for him," she said steadfastly. "It was humbling."

These healthy choices included remaining sober, getting back into school and trying her best to set a good example for Ronnie, showing him other paths than the bumpy one that she and his father have been down.

"The best moment of my entire life was the first moment I held him. When I'm sad I try to think about that."

Even so, life wasn't rainbows and happy-ever-after: Shortly after Ronnie's birth, an alcohol relapse and a car accident leading to a brief stint in jail put a hitch in her recovery. But again, Shelton bounced back; she is currently 19 months sober, is attending school full-time for criminal justice, and is involved in the Family Drug Court Program, which helps recovering addicts improve their parenting skills.

It was at the court program where she met Delilah Kennedy (aka Juice Nuke'em), a fellow recovering addict and mom of an 11-year-old boy, Jude. Kennedy is a member of the Lava City Roller Dolls, an all-female, amateur, flat-track roller derby league.

Shelton wanted what derby had to offer—exercise, companionship, and opportunities to set and achieve goals—so she made a promise to try the sport in the coming year. Juice had her in practice by the following Wednesday.

"Juice said that derby saves souls," said Shelton, rolling her eyes. "But it did save me in so many ways. It's my outlet. When I'm skating I don't have to worry about being a single mom or sobriety or my other problems. I just focus on my skates on the floor."

Derby draws women of all ages and outlooks. The 30 plus team members range from early 20s into their 40s and come from all backgrounds. Many of them are mothers. Their common MO is getting down and dirty in the rink together.

"It taught me how to have friendships with other women, other moms," said Shelton. "Ronnie and derby are my two biggest motivators. We all have this tiny thing in common and it becomes your family."

That was the consensus coming from Shelton and the other derby women when I sat down with them after a practice bout at the indoor rink at Cascade Indoor Sports. All of the skaters I talked to, who had moments before been knocking each other off their skates, agreed that the Dolls are a family. Shelton explained that her son calls each of her derby sisters "Ti-Ti," baby talk for auntie.

"Derby is a great network for women," explained Amy Robertson (aka Mama-natrix), a maternal figure for the crew and mother of three daughters of her own, all of them young skaters. "If they need a babysitter or hit a hard time, we help them. We're just a phone call away. A single mom, with no family available, all of the sudden has a 30-person support group."

The women share everything, backing each other emotionally and logistically. They swap parenting advice and stories from their school and work days. They watch each other's kids after practice. They share their achievements and failures, on and off the rink, reaffirming each other when they succeed and offering constructive criticism when things don't go so well. When one of the girls is physically injured, they provide support then, too.

"When I got hurt everyone brought me food," said Juice, who was sporting a wrist brace but swears she will be back on her skates after a few more weeks of healing. "They would stay and eat it with me. I've never felt like such a part of a family in my life."

Many of the women are not only moms, but teachers, counselors and business owners in their day-to-day lives and do what they can to share their specific skills with the team. The supportive teach-a-girl-to-fish nature of the club has been life changing for some of the members.

"It's been hard recognizing the value of my time with my son. Now, we skate together," said Juice. "I lost 60 pounds I quit smoking for derby. These women are really good role models—they show me how to be a good mom."

The derby girls are busy ladies, loving parents, students, hard workers and above all, tough cookies.

"These are phenomenal women that I would be proud for my kids to look up to," said Justine Larsen, (aka "Pantie Drop-Her"), mother of four.

Tabby Johnson (aka Mud Slinger), a single mom with two elementary-aged kids, relates to Shelton's single-parent struggles, and says that she's found a solid group of friends and supporters in her derby girls.

"It's a network of support. I can get daycare when I'm in a pinch, and they've even taught me about living on a budget. We look out for each other," said Johnson. "When I'm trying to balance being mom, dad, chauffer, plumber and everything else, I can utilize the girls for help."

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