I Can Skate

April 01, 2010
Dorothy Hamill's adaptive skating program gives children with physical disabilities a chance to soar.
Dorothy Hamill

The lobby of the ice rink hums with excitement as children laugh and talk while their parents bundle them up and help them get their skates on. In one corner, a little boy grins from ear to ear as his dad helps him to his feet and his mom snaps photo after photo. Across the room, another mom keeps a careful eye on her son as he practices walking in his skates, one hand on the wall for stability. These moments are familiar to anyone who's taken a child ice skating, but for these families they are especially poignant. Many of the parents never imagined their children would get the chance to skate, because simply walking was challenging enough.

But thanks to Dorothy Hamill, Olympic gold medalist and figure skating icon, that's all changing. After a visit to the Kennedy Krieger Institute, she knew she had to find a way to help.

"My breath was taken away by the work done at Kennedy Krieger," says Dorothy. "It was impossible not to want to do something." Her interests and talents provided a perfect opportunity for the creation of a unique program that would allow children with physical disabilities the chance to enjoy ice skating. Dorothy met with Gerry and Gwena Herman, who run the Institute's physically challenged sports program. After just a few months of research and planning, I-Skate was a reality.

"I've given different ice skating clinics throughout the years," notes Dorothy, "but it's a dream to be doing this at Kennedy Krieger and working with the Hermans, who have such amazing dedication to these children."

On the Ice for the First Time

"We're almost there, Ruby," Dave Elbert assures his daughter as he laces up her skates, which have been specially designed to fit around her ankle braces. Eight-year-old Ruby is a cancer survivor-at just 4 months old, a neuroblastoma tumor crushed her spinal cord and she was never expected to walk again. But she defied expectations, and today she will go ice skating for the first time.

Ruby joins the other kids who stare in wonder as Dorothy Hamill glides around the ice turning and spinning so gracefully that it's almost as though she is flying. When she asks if they're ready to take a turn, they nod eagerly, ready to test out their skates.

Dorothy with Children in the I-Skate ProgramEach child has been given a special walker adapted for use on the ice and, with help from Gerry, Gwena and some dedicated volunteers, they get their own chance to glide across the ice. They take to skating slowly, but after a few turns around the rink, their confidence grows. Dorothy takes turns helping each child and offering words of encouragement.

"When I step on the ice, I almost feel like a bird. I can feel the wind in my face, and it's just exhilarating," says Dorothy. "I want these children to feel that." The feeling of freedom that ice skating brings is beyond compare for children who have cerebral palsy, paralysis and other disorders and injuries that make it hard to move.

As Dorothy helps Ruby around the ice, Dave watches from the sidelines. He's a little nervous, as any parent would be, but he's also thrilled. He cheers Ruby on and is greeted with a smile that won't stop.

"These kids don't get many chances to play," Dave says, "But they need to. It's such an important part of their development." At Kennedy Krieger, kids like Ruby have those opportunities, boosting their confidence and making them stronger. For Ruby in particular, the new ice skating program is exciting for another reason entirely.

"Lots of her friends have ice-skating birthday parties," says Dave. "Now Ruby will actually be able to go and enjoy skating with her friends."

Making the Impossible Possible

Just down the ice, Keith watches his daughter Samantha laugh with delight as she finds her feet. Though they live in Cecil County, Keith is more than happy to make the two-hour round trip down to Baltimore for the I-Skate Program.

"She enjoys this so much that I don't blink an eye," says Keith. Samantha has cerebral palsy and it's a challenge for her to get the exercise she needs. I-Skate is a fun way for children like Samantha to be physically active, while learning new skills like skating backwards or even falling safely on the ice. Best of all, it's an activity many can enjoy for the rest of their lives.

"This is the first time I had ever thought of this as a possibility," Keith says of the I-Skate program. "She wants to participate just like other kids. It's so rewarding for us that she's able to do that now."

And that is just what I-Skate was meant to do. Dorothy and the Hermans wanted to let these children and their families know that skating wasn't impossible.

"Families of children with physical challenges sometimes think that recreational activities and sports just aren't something their families can do," says Gerry. "But with support and encouragement, they can. I-Skate is an example of the limitless potential of these children."

Dorothy with Child in I-Skate ProgramChildren like Samantha and Ruby are living proof that with just a little bit of help, every child who participates will be able to say, "I can skate." After just a few sessions with the Hermans and Dorothy, many of the participants were able to skate without support from a volunteer, and several are on their way to skating without walkers. They're also planning an end-of-season show to share what they've learned with their friends and family.

Samantha is even planning an ice-skating party for her upcoming birthday. And Ruby's invited.

To learn more about the program and watch a video of the kids, visit www.i-skate.org.

Making It All Possible

Gerry and Gwena Herman started the physically challenged sports program at Kennedy Krieger in 1989. The Hermans started with a wheelchair basketball program, but expanded the program so that kids with a wider range of disabilities would be able to compete. Today, kids have the opportunity to take part in sports, such as wheelchair basketball and football, swimming, track, archery, baseball, cycling, sitting volleyball, tennis, and sled hockey.

I-Skate was a natural extension of the existing sled hockey program. In addition to the sleds used for ice hockey, I-Skate offers a variety of adaptive equipment specially designed and manufactured to assist participants in their skating, including:

  • Adaptive ice skates that can accommodate wider feet or orthotics,
  • Walkers to aid stability and balance,
  • Ice sleds for participants with paralysis,
  • Helmets to protect the head in case of a fall.

To learn more about the Bennett Institute, visit bennett.kennedykrieger.org.

Kennedy Krieger Institute Announces Retirement of President and CEO

Dr. Gary W. GoldsteinThe Institute’s board of directors is conducting a national search and is expected to name a new CEO in the coming months.
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