By BRENNA GRITEMAN
The chant “I can do it. I can skate” echoes throughout The Cube, fueled by dozens of determined voices lined up across the ice.
It’s a heartwarming show of solidarity and enthusiasm that soon gives way to a flurry of frozen activity, as people of all ages fan out across the rink. Human chains are formed and spun into pinwheels, balls are kicked gleefully across the ice, stops are practiced and perfected. Laughter ensues.
For the 54 variously abled Gliding Stars and the 80 or so volunteers, this is just another Sunday afternoon in Findlay.
But for a spectator watching for the first time, it’s an intricate web involving moms and dads, brothers and sisters, volunteers of all ages. And a group of energetic young skaters proving that “It’s Great to be a Kid.”
That’s the theme for this year’s ice show, scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Sunday. It features Disney music and other upbeat favorites, fancy costumes and a cuddly bunch of lions.
“She loves the lion, and she gets to be a lion in this,” says Dan Gremling of Findlay, whose daughter Mollie recently discovered “The Wizard of Oz.”
Mollie is 7 and has Down syndrome. She is in her fourth year with Gliding Stars and, like every child involved in the adaptive skating program, is kept in constant eyeshot by a season-long volunteer instructor. In Mollie’s case, that protective gaze also comes from brothers Simon, 12, and Gage, 18, who are volunteers.
“This is kind of the highlight of her weekend, is getting out on the ice,” Gremling says of his daughter. And, it’s a blessing to have the whole family involved, he says.
Gremling, however, chooses to show his support off the ice: “I wouldn’t call it ‘skating,’ but I’ve been on skates before.”
The family aspect of Gliding Stars is perhaps its greatest attribute, says executive director Cindy Bregel.
As the mother of a special needs child herself, she knows the value of building self-confidence in kids while creating a sense of community and support for families. While the children skate, parents work together to build sets, design costumes and secure raffle items. Along the way, they begin sharing resources and building mini support systems within the Gliding Stars community.
“I love seeing that. I love to see that empowerment that goes on, because having a child with special needs is not easy,” Bregel says.
Bregel herself skated as a student at Bowling Green State University (“Peggy Fleming was my girl”) but could never have predicted that her life would one day revolve around an ice rink.
Back in 2000, she got a call from an official with Special Olympics asking if her daughter, Taryn, might want to learn about adaptive ice skating. The 1998 winter Olympics featuring gold medalist Tara Lipinski had just wrapped up, and Bregel had a megafan on her hands.
Leaders from the national Gliding Stars program presented an exhibition at the University of Findlay, and “I was sold,” Bregel recalls.
An advisory committee was assembled, and it took a little over a year to raise enough funds to start the Findlay chapter. The inaugural group of 20 skaters — including Taryn — was on the ice by winter 2002.
“She’s the only one that is still skating, from day one,” Bregel says of her daughter, who is now 27.
Bregel watched in amazement as Taryn built strength and coordination, and improved her balance. Her self-esteem went through the roof, and that’s something Bregel has delighted in witnessing in each generation of skaters that has come since.
“The day of the show, when you come in here, the Stars just feed off the energy of the audience,” Bregel says, noting that most of the skaters involved are not accustomed to performing for a crowd.
The bulk of the Stars are on the autism spectrum, and Bregel says just lacing up their skates tight enough to hold their feet safely can be a big accomplishment. Stars use two types of special skates, along with any number of adaptive walkers, to accommodate their movement on the ice.
Bregel says she knew she was onto something special when she began to realize how many people were driving in from neighboring cities. In 2006, a group of families spun off their own Toledo chapter of Gliding Stars, after having participated for several seasons in Findlay. And two years ago, two UF graduates went on to start a chapter in Chagrin Falls.
Eva Von Sossan of Fort Jennings drives 10-year-old Audrey to Findlay every Sunday during skating season for Gliding Stars practice (September through March).
Audrey, too, will be a lion in the upcoming ice show and is a huge fan of playing with parachutes and kicking a ball across the ice.
Eva says her daughter took to skating right away and has shown significant physical and social improvements since starting the program three years ago.
“It’s a very positive, encouraging environment where they focus on what kids CAN do,” she says.
“They’re comfortable and they’re encouraged, and that’s huge.”
A large part of that comfort is the season-long volunteer pairing. Just as volunteers work hard off the ice, helpers of all ages and backgrounds skate right alongside the Stars week after week. Many are big brothers and sisters, or play hockey at Findlay High School. Plenty more are members of the Silver Blades skating club.
“That’s possibly the biggest blessing with this program, is the volunteer base that I have,” says Bregel, noting that her husband, Bill, is among the many diligent, behind-the-scenes workers.
Ethan LaFontaine is in his third year at UF and has volunteered with Gliding Stars since his junior high years.
His two brothers — older brother Matthew and younger brother Isaac — were both Stars, so volunteering with the program was a natural fit.
Years later, as a physical therapy major, he is using his experience on the ice to gain hands-on practice in his field of study. And, he’s become a cheerleader of sorts for the organization.
“Everybody that knows me knows where I’ll be at 1 o’clock on a Sunday,” LaFontaine says. “It’s a great program and it’s a great opportunity.”
Kelsey Platek and Rachel Nelson are graduate students in UF’s occupational therapy program and are doing their community field work with the Gliding Stars.
Platek, a four-year past volunteer, explains that their mission is to improve the Stars’ overall function by focusing on the athletes’ positioning and body placement. Parents can help the skaters develop these behaviors at home throughout the week, with the payoff realized Sundays on the ice.
Stars range in age from 3 through their late 30s, and the program is so popular that there is a waiting list to join. Volunteers are always needed and can contact Bregel at 419-423-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets to the ice show are $10 for adults, $5 for children 10 and younger. They are on sale at Integrity Salon, 729 N. Main St., or at the door the day of the event.