Thursday, January 7, 2010

The best way to skate

This morning I skipped the first few hours back at work after a two week break ... to skate with disabled kids.

This is a grant-funded program in the San Mateo schools. Every Thursday in January, several classes of disabled kids come to the San Mateo ice rink and are escorted around by women hockey players. It's a coincidence that we are all women hockey players ... the call for volunteers goes out to the NCWHL, and we respond.

These kids have a variety of challenges. Some have mental/emotional issues, some have sensory issues, some have physical issues. Most have more than one. The therapy of being in the cold and moving so smoothly on the ice does wonders for them.

It takes the strong and nimble skating skills of hockey players to do this. With chairs, wheelchairs, and kids skating on their own, it's amazing we don't have collisions.

We help kids who hang onto the wall: my first kid, Angel (no real names here), went all the way around the rink with one hand on the wall and one arm supported by me. I closed the doors along the boards so he could cross the gaps. He whimpered in fear when I moved away from him by inches to pull the doors shut, although after the third he understood the drill. My feet were enormously cramped after that!

We push a lot of kids on chairs. This is my favorite part. I later took Angel around on a chair. With his limited communication skills, he laughed and expressed that he wanted to go faster, racing the other kids. We spin the chairs in circles, either by pulling the chair in a circle (variously with ourselves or the chair as an axis) or by tossing the chair forward with a spin and then catching it. Angel loved that one. After our first turn around the rink, as I checked in with him, he waved his hands with his fingers spread. I couldn't hear him, so I scooted to the front of him. "Five times!" he shouted gleefully. He'd counted: I'd spun him five times.

As I was resting, one of the teachers turned to me and said, "You'll take Charlie around, right?" I looked at Charlie: a 200-pound kid who was just staring forward, with no response to our words or the world around him. I said, "Sure." We maneuvered him into a chair, and I began pushing. It's actually not hard to push someone that big on the ice. I knew right away that he was smiling, and the teachers along the side told me so. His only reaction to his surroundings was that smile.

We push kids in wheelchairs: my first one was Debbie. She smiled her crooked smile and laughed the whole time. On a couple of occasions a teacher stepped onto the ice to take a picture, and we lined up the wheelchair kids. Debbie was the only one who responded with a huge smile. (I asked for a copy of the photo, but there are legal issues with releasing them.) Pushing Debbie, I practiced spinning a wheelchair on the ice. A skill I am still working on.

My last kid was Susie. During the wheelchair pictures, Susie appeared as a pile of purple jacket. She was curled in a fetal position in her chair covered by a hood, completely rolled up. A teacher tried to prop her up for the photo, but over she went.

I took over pushing her little chair. After a loop around, I stopped to chat with the teachers, and suddenly she turned around and gave me a brilliant smile. It turns out that she loves to be surrounded by conversation. I'd take her around again, and she'd flop forward; I'd talk to someone, and that smile would reemerge. Everyone celebrated that she'd come out of her frightened shell.

Then I discovered that she wasn't completely covering herself when she flopped forward: Susie was watching the ice go by beneath her chair. I knew just the snow and the grooves in the ice were enough for her, but I also took her around the painted center of the ice. I traced the circles, the blue lines, the red line, the dots, the crease. I followed the concrete lines showing through the paint. The brilliant smile, right at me, appeared several times. I don't know what she was experiencing, but I loved providing it for her.

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