Skating Athletes Bold at Heart. Those five words give the ideal introduction to the SABAH program. From sequins to smiles, SABAH cherishes its well-known commodity for those who think that differences are meant to be embraced and compassion is a virtue.
For those unfamiliar with SABAH, it can be defined as a recreational therapeutic program for individuals with disabilities. At least, that’s the most fundamental classification. But for countless skaters and volunteers, SABAH exceeds the boundaries of that definition with distinct dexterity.
SABAH has branched out to include many therapeutic programs for people with unique challenges, but its greatest and most popular activity is its skating season. For six months, 900 athletes and volunteers prepare a breathtaking ice show to be performed at the First Niagara Center. This year’s show, with the theme encompassing the television shows of Nickelodeon, will be performed at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Sheila O’Brien, executive director of SABAH for eight years and a volunteer for eight years before that, said that she first got involved because of the overwhelming velocity of the show.
“If you’ve never been to the show, I know the way it first hit me when I first went,” she said. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got to be involved in that.’ So we’re hoping that’s what people take from it.”
SABAH has an open door for all ages and abilities. From preschoolers to adults, hundreds of volunteers and skaters strap on their skates every week and step out onto the ice.
O’Brien noted that many of the volunteers are teenagers.
“We have about 500 volunteers; I would say close to 350 of them are teenagers,” she said. “And a lot of them start as community service, and it’s amazing how many continue on. I think our teenagers get as much out of it as our participants, as our athletes.”
For many volunteers, including 20-year-old Dan Haugeto, SABAH has forged friendships that extend far beyond the walls of the arena. Haugeto, who first signed up as a SABAH volunteer in his senior year at Clarence High School, met his skating partner, Kevin Britzzalarro, through the program. “I’m Kevin’s aide outside of SABAH, so every Monday I’ve been going there for like almost a year now,” he said. “I changed my major in school because of that, because I love to work with Kevin so much, and just being with him … whether we’re playing the Wii or doing homework, just hanging out with him just honestly makes my day better, and he loves it too.”
Haugeto, who is studying to be an occupational therapist at the University at Buffalo, encourages teens in high school to volunteer with SABAH.
“I wish I knew about SABAH earlier than my senior year of high school. I wish I did it all throughout high school,” he said. “Just like the reactions the kids get, to see on their faces how they’re out there having fun. You can come in feeling miserable and everything, but no matter what mood you’re in, you come here and everything goes away.”
“If you’ve never had any interaction with people with disabilities, it’s a terrific way for people to lose that stigma of people with [disabilities],” said O’Brien on the transition from timid teen to outgoing volunteer. “It’s amazing, you see some of the teens come in and they’re a little bit apprehensive at first, and then once they get in, they lose that. And that’s what we want to see for them, so that they’re moving forward, so that they aren’t uncomfortable when they come in contact with a person with a disability.”
High school freshmen Molly McDonnell and Sarah Richmond tag-team volunteer with their skater, Robert Jaeger, on the ice every Sunday.
“When I was younger I used to be really afraid of them actually,” Molly said, referring to people with disabilities. “Now I’m not afraid because I know that they’re not harmful at all. They’re just different.”
“It made me see them differently, like they can do more than I thought they could do,” said Sarah, who attends Nardin Academy.
Not all the volunteer work with SABAH is done on the ice.
Nick Christiano, a senior at Williamsville North High School who’s been volunteering since his freshman year, has the official title of “off-ice volunteer.”
Tying skates, helping get skaters on and off the ice, and organizing the walkers covers only a fraction of the responsibilities he manages. His favorite part of SABAH? “The people,” he said. “You get to know the people, the skaters, know them as people, their personalities,” he said. “A lot of people at school see the disabled kids and just walk by them without getting to know who they are. It’s good to know who they are.”
“It’s a very fun way to get community service hours,” said Molly, who attends City Honors High School. “And you feel really good after.”
Putting the routine together is never an easy endeavor. Human pinwheels, marching, skating in circles and keeping uniform lines are all challenging undertakings that form a compilation of talent on the ice.
Graham Henderson, 22, has been an athlete with SABAH for eight years.
“I like it very much,” he said. “I see all of my friends here at SABAH, and so I do like skating with my friends and I have a really good time, and I enjoy it.”
Kevin is simply thrilled for this year’s show. Since it’s his first show, Kevin’s excitement is limitless. His group is performing to the “Dora the Explorer” theme song, and when asked why he’s so excited, Kevin said, “Because I get to be Diego!”
“Coming into it I knew of disabilities and stuff, but now especially working with Kevin … you see how much disability awareness really isn’t out there,” said Haugeto. “It’s an eye-opener.”
Every week these dedicated participants and volunteers put their best skates forward for the pure joy of it.
SABAH’s Celebration On Ice will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at the First Niagara Center. Tickets are $10. For more information or to find out more about volunteer opportunities, call 362-9600 or visit www.sabahinc.org.
Rachel Whalen is a sophomore at Williamsville South High School.