Lettie Cartonia stands barely 4 feet tall. She has speech problems, but she’s anything but shy.
So when Cartonia walks into the Hamburg Town Arena for weekly practice with her SABAH skating teammates, they all know what’s coming.
“I’M BACK,” she yells, and everyone gathers around for hugs with the 44-year-old woman with Down syndrome.
“Lettie is a very special woman,” said Sheila O’Brien, executive director of SABAH (Skating Athletes Bold at Heart). “For some reason, when you walk away from Lettie, you feel better about yourself. She has an innate ability, without saying much, to make your day better.”
As the skating association prepares for its 36th annual ice show, “SABAH Goes for the Gold,” at 2 p.m. Sunday in First Niagara Center, the association is trumpeting its special teacher-student relationships, like the one Cartonia has with her volunteer skating mentor, Kathie Saab. SABAH has more than 650 skaters with disabilities, teaming up with 500 volunteers in weekly skating sessions.
Cartonia and Saab, skater and mentor, have both helped each other out of real crises in their lives. So while it may be a cliche for volunteers in nonprofit groups to say they get more from volunteering than they give, Saab wasn’t kidding when she says that’s the case with her and Cartonia.
After Saab’s 34-year-old son, Nathan, died in January 2011 from injuries in a car accident, Cartonia helped her unleash some of the love still bottled up inside her.
“I’m finding out what life is really all about,” Saab said. “I’m finding that living in the moment, appreciating the now, is so much more important than living in the past or in the future. I’m finding peace, and I haven’t found much peace since my son died. You can’t experience joy until you’re at peace. And Lettie has brought me joy.”
But this strong bond works in both directions.
Starting last spring, Saab, who sees Cartonia at least once a week throughout the year, noticed that her younger friend wasn’t smiling, wasn’t feeling well and was behaving strangely. Cartonia, who otherwise has no family or friends visiting her, was moved to a different, more restrictive group home in the fall, and Saab was told Cartonia might not have long to live.
So Saab became her advocate, lobbying for something to be done for her, until the group home changed her medication. The old Cartonia soon was back.
O’Brien remembers seeing Cartonia last fall, when she was so down in the dumps.
“I saw her, and I just broke down,” O’Brien said. “She was disintegrating. I thought it would be the last time I would see Lettie. Then a month later, I saw her, and she was the old Lettie, with the hugs and ‘I’m back.’ ”
As O’Brien added, “Lettie has a voice now, and it’s Kathie.”
The friendship between the two women started about four years ago, when Saab, a longtime SABAH volunteer, moved to the Hamburg rink. It didn’t take long for teacher and student to bond.
“My first reaction was, ‘How could someone with such severe challenges be so happy?’ ” Saab recalled. “She’s a real happy-go-lucky individual who seems to live in the moment. She derives joy from the simplest things.”
One day, Cartonia asked Saab to lunch. The younger woman told Saab her basic story, that her parents were in heaven and how sad she was that they’re so far away. Saab also learned that no one ever visited Cartonia in her group home. The bond grew tighter.
Besides lunch, Cartonia and Saab go out for ice cream, to the movies, to church, even out shopping. Saab revels in the joy that Cartonia gets from treats most of us take for granted, like sitting in the front seat of a car, filling up the gas tank and working an ATM machine. Cartonia also comes to the Saab home for Christmas and other family celebrations, prompting Saab’s husband and daughter, Jerry and Sarah-Jane, to razz her about Cartonia being their new adopted daughter and sister.
But Saab is quick to point out what Cartonia has meant to her.
Following her son’s death, Saab received a note from a friend who said, “When there’s nothing left from your son but love, then give it away to another child.”
That’s exactly what she has done.