STARs on ice: Sportsplex program helps special skaters shine

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Skating instructor Melissa Ksiazek (right) introduces 9-year-old Brooke McNally to ice skating Jan. 16 during the Taylor Sportsplex Skating Therapy with Adaptive Recreation or STAR program. Brooke is a third-grader at Anderson Elementary School in Trenton.

Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR – When it comes to helping skaters shine, the STAR program at the Sportsplex is in a class by itself.

Skating Therapy with Adaptive Recreation, STAR, is a learn-to-skate program for special needs children based on a therapeutic skating program developed by the U.S. Figure Skating Basic Skills Program. Certified skating instructors with background and knowledge of special needs children help physically and developmentally challenged children develop skating skills for fun and exercise while taking their limitations into consideration.

Jennifer Campau, director of developmental skating, has taught skating for 20 years and served as a skating director at the Sportsplex for 10 years. She has wanted to establish a skating program for special needs children since her days teaching at Blair Moody Elementary School in Taylor, where she worked with special needs children.

While the U.S. Figure Skating Basic Skills Program, of which the Therapeutic program is a part, was established in 1968, the program makes its debut at Taylor Sportsplex this year.

“It was… my New Year’s resolution last year to get this program started,” Campau said. “We’re really excited. We’re hoping that this is a program that can be offered to all the students in the Downriver area that have special needs.”

Children can join the sessions at any time and the $55 cost will be pro-rated. Held on Mondays from 5:20 p.m. to 5:45 p.m., the first session runs through Feb. 20, and the second session runs from March 26 to April 30 at the Taylor Sportsplex, at 13333 Telegraph Rd.

Campau said they are starting out small, with four children, to make sure they are doing things right for the children the first time the class is offered. They eventually hope to have 50 students.

“We want the kids to be in a nice social environment without too much anxiety,” Campau said. “We’re using nice small classes so there’s a lot more one-on-one instruction, so that we can be physically there to handle them and help them and guide them and reassure them.”

As the program grows they will add stabilized metal walkers and harnesses and other equipment that will help children with disabilities, Campau said.

Parents fill out a form that describes a child’s diagnostics, anxiety level and trigger points so instructors can make skaters as comfortable on the ice as possible.

“We want this to be an enjoyable time and we know that even (for) kids without disabilities skating is scary,” Campau said.

Campau worked with special needs children as a teacher at Blair Moody Elementary School before working full time as a skating instructor and program director.

Her colleague, skating instructor Gail Sombati, who has taught special needs skaters and who has a son with autism, is excited that the program has begun.

Sombati said that as a teacher, she finds it rewarding to see a big smile spread across a special needs child’s face when they first start to enjoy skating.

“I teach figure skating as my job; that’s what I do – teach,” Sombati said. “And just to be able to have… children with special needs and abilities… step on the ice and smile… it’s something that… people (with non-disabled children) take for granted.”

Children start off-ice initially to show learn basic skills like standing with skates on, ice safety and balance. The children also wear protective helmets.

Once on the ice, she said the instructors stay with each child and try to get down to the children’s level – sometimes on their knees – to look right at them and talk to them about things they like. She said they try to relate the lesson to their favorite subjects, like a storybook or cartoon character.

“A lot of special needs kids are fixated on certain topics, like for example, Thomas the Train,” Sombati said. “To know their special interests and triggers helps, and we have a list of those.”

Skating instructor Melissa Ksiazek agreed that while imagination and patience are important ingredients to help ensure that first-time skaters are enjoying themselves, they also make safety a priority.

While the skating classes are 20 minutes long, she said they can reduce the time or let the children take breaks to meet their individual needs, adding that skating moves more muscles than most special needs children are used to using.

Finding ways for his son to use more muscles and to become more physically active is the goal of Allen Park resident Kirk Douglas, whose 12-year old son Ryan has Down syndrome and is in a program for cognitively impaired students at Arno Elementary School in Allen Park.

“He’s got a lot of loose joints and things and it helps to tone them and it makes his health better,” Douglas said. “It gets (him) more active, which he needs, because if he had his way he would just watch TV all day.”

Both Ryan Douglas and 9-year-old Brooke McNally, who also has Down syndrome, have participated in therapeutic horseback riding programs in the past for exercise. Brooke also has enjoyed stretching her muscles during ballet classes.

The daughter of Trenton resident Jean McNally, Brooke is a third grader at Anderson Elementary School in Trenton.

McNally said her daughter is usually open to new challenges, and is willing to try activities that her older brother and sister do.

“We encourage her to do a lot of things,” McNally said. “I treat her just like I do my other two. So she’s special but she can do it all. Hopefully she’ll like this.”

Campau said she also hopes the STAR skaters will enjoy themselves.

“We want to make this a fun, enjoyable time for them so that they… want to come back.”

For more information call (734) 374-8900 or go to