Bethany Vaccaro has tried many sports in her 10 years of life.
“She tried dancing, cheerleading. She was always three steps behind, or the one in the back,” said Tracy Vaccaro, Bethany’s mother. “She could not keep up.”
All that changed when she started skating with the Gliding Stars.
“Gliding Stars gives her a chance to shine without competing,” Vaccaro said of her daughter.
On Friday, Bethany will soar as a zebra on ice in “Gliding Stars Goes on Vacation,” a musical ice-dancing show that benefits Gliding Stars, the nonprofit organization that provides adaptive ice skating opportunities for people with challenges.
Guiding the event is Elizabeth O’Donnell, founder and president of Gliding Stars. It will be her 37th ice show and will feature more than 100 skaters ages 2 to 60 who are challenged by a variety of physical, mental and emotional disabilities.
Bethany and her five brothers and sisters will all take part in a pair of ice shows. The six children, ranging in age from 3 to 14, were adopted by Vaccaro, a single foster parent from Lockport who opened her home to 30 foster children throughout the years.
“A typical day is pretty busy,” said Vaccaro, who is 45. “Foster care is hard. You make this child part of your family, but the goal is returning that child to a family. Once you adopt them, it’s hard because they bring their baggage, their history of their parents with them. But you deal with it.”
Each of Vaccaro’s adopted children came to her through foster care. Each is a child with special needs. Vaccaro, divorced for 16 years, also has two grown biological children ages 24 and 21, and one grandchild.
Eating meals together is a must in the Vaccaro house, as is skate night Monday, when the family piles in the Dodge Grand Caravan bound for Niagara Falls and Hyde Park Arena for a two-hour Gliding Stars skate.
For five years, Vaccaro has watched her adopted children gain confidence through the Gliding Stars program. The six children attend five different schools. And while five will be skating this weekend as Gliding Stars, Jamison, 13, will serve as one of the 200 on-ice volunteers who help the skaters navigate.
Over the years, O’Donnell has successfully mounted themed ice programs that encourage developmentally delayed children to perform in ways they could not have imagined. Many of her students reside in group homes. Some are living with cerebral palsy, autism or fetal alcohol syndrome. A few were born addicted to crack cocaine.
O’Donnell recalled one special 16-year-old who this year will be performing in her 15th ice show.
“I’ve been with her since she was one-and-a-half,” said O’Donnell. “Melissa was born without part of her brain. She has graduated to four different walkers, and this year she was determined to perform without one, but she is experiencing problems. I encouraged her to keep trying. I told her she was not a quitter.”
When O’Donnell started, she said the concept was new in the area.
“There wasn’t anything when I started sports for disabilities,” said O’Donnell. “When I was 6, my best friend’s little brother was disabled, and he was at home. That’s when I realized I liked making disabled people feel included.”
A former professional ice skater, O’Donnell established Gliding Stars in 1994. Prior to that O’Donnell founded SABAH (Skating Association for the Blind and Handicapped), and staged its first pageant in 1979 in Memorial Auditorium. O’Donnell and SABAH parted ways after her dismissal in 2004.
Gliding Stars is a national organization with chapters in Rochester; Saratoga Springs; Erie, Pa.; Toledo, Ohio; Findlay, Ohio; and Central Florida. There is also an affiliate in Marquette, Mich. At the end of each season, each chapter mounts a publicly attended ice show to showcase the accomplishments of the participants and volunteers, and to provide the incentive of performing in public, a goal that inspires participants during the season. Some skaters have been skating with O’Donnell for decades. O’Donnell, who is 59, admitted she has learned from them all.
“It taught me that everybody is different and that is good,” O’Donnell said. “You never know how far you can go so keep your expectations high. Courage is not the anticipation of fear. Courage is doing it anyway. Do it afraid. Just do it.”
Friday’s program starts at 7 p.m. at the Northtown Center (former Pepsi Center), 1615 Amherst Manor Drive. It will be repeated at 1 p.m. next Saturday. Tickets for “Gliding Stars Goes on Vacation” are $8 in advance and $10 at the door. Children 4 and younger are admitted free. For more information, call 608-8345 or visit www.glidingstars.org.