By Jess LevensonJune 8, 2018
Karen Keil, Buffalo District Environmental Toxicologist, performed with the Gliding Stars of Western New York as a volunteer assistant skater at its 14th annual ice show at the Northtown Center in Amherst, NY, Apr. 14, 2018.
"We're a nonprofit organization that provides individuals with disabilities the opportunity to increase their personal potential through development of ice skating skills," explained Elizabeth O'Donnell, Gliding Stars founder and President.
Keil and her partner, Nick, skated to the tune of Pharrell Williams' "Happy". More than 100 skaters with disabilities and 200 volunteers participated in the event.
"The whole volunteer experience was amazing," said Keil. "The season ends with an 'Ice Capades'-style show where students show off their skating routines set to music. It's incredibly uplifting to see students with disabilities and their families work so hard and accomplish something spectacular."
Getting to that point was a challenge.
Keil's journey of volunteerism began at a Disability Awareness Month lunch-and-learn event that Buffalo District EEO Officer Judy Phillips had organized in Oct. 2017.
"Our Disability Awareness Month programs raise awareness of diversity issues and the importance of including individuals with disabilities in the workplace," Phillips explained. "I invited Elizabeth O'Donnell to present, and her passion sparked an interest in Karen that lasted long beyond the presentation."
Keil knew the commitment was daunting, but her curiosity won. As a new volunteer, she worked with the Gliding Stars beginner track.
"I didn't know what I was getting into," she admitted. "Some of these students are barely able to stand up without a walker."
Her partner Nick is a skating student of eight years with severe Down syndrome.
"I didn't know Nick could talk at all the first few weeks," said Keil. "He'd just put his head down and not move."
The ice show at season's end began to loom over the quiet hour Keil and Nick shared every week. Amid the crawling progress, Keil reflected on why she had volunteered.
"My mother contracted polio when she was a child," she explained. "Our family labored for hours every day providing physical therapy. After months of battling the disease, she began to recover and had to re-learn to walk. Our doctor recommended tap dancing as a way to strengthen her affected foot and ankle. Although the polio left her with a chronic fatigue, my mother lighted up and always had the energy to dance when the occasion arose."
"The dancing lessons accomplished more than physical healing," Keil continued. "They inspired a life-long joy via music and dance. I realized my involvement with a group that used ice skating as a physical therapy for those with disabilities was a perfect way to honor my mother."
A new level of fun began as O'Donnell introduced songs for the end-of-season ice show. During an Elvis Presley medley, Nick swung his hips, let go of his walker, and shook around. Keil was astounded.
"What's going on?" she asked another instructor.
"Oh, Nick lights up when he hears the music," was the reply.
Best of all was the tune chosen for Nick and Keil's group-Pharrell Williams' song "Happy".
"It might seem crazy what I'm 'bout to say
Sunshine she's here, you can take a break
I'm a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don't care, baby, by the way
Because I'm happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof...."
"We never gave up," Keil said. "Over time, Nick and I built trust, and he began to communicate with a look, or a thumbs-up. Then he'd skate with me. Eventually we mastered our routine."
"Karen was a great partner for Nick," said O'Donnell. "For the students, it's a family event where friends, siblings and parents rally around them. Nick lives in a group home and this is one weekly experience that has social, physical, and emotional benefits for him."
On the day of the show, the emcees called out Nick's name as he strode on the ice.
"Nick did his absolute best one-leg trick," said O'Donnell. "He was grinning from ear to ear."
"The show was so much fun," said Keil. "Everyone cheered for the performers and the music was great. It's a completely joyous and fun atmosphere."
"From the beginning, it was easy to tell Karen has a kind heart and a willingness to jump right in," said O'Donnell.
"I'm looking forward to skating again with the group next year," concluded Keil. "Gliding Stars is a great program for people with disabilities. Everyone benefits, whether it's a mental, physical or emotional disability."
Gliding Stars welcomes skaters and non-skaters alike, and events are held year-round. If you would like to become involved, contact the Gliding Stars at 716-608-8345.