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Champions learn to give something back

Public school children with developmental disabilities skate with the stars.

A student smiles with Drew Meekins and Caitlyn Yankowskas.
A student smiles with Drew Meekins and Caitlyn Yankowskas. (Jo Ann Schneider Farris )

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By Jo Ann Schneider Farris, special to icenetwork.com
(04/28/2008) - Thirty-five public school students with developmental disabilities from the Mapleton School District in Arvada, Colo., were given a rare treat on Friday, April 25. Some of U.S. Figure Skating's top pair skating teams came together to help the kids with skating, and put on a special exhibition performance.

All of the pair skaters are students of skating coach Dalilah Sappenfield. Most of the skaters train at the Colorado Springs World Arena and represent the Broadmoor Skating Club.

The skaters that participated included: Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, Jessica Rose Paetsch and Jon Nuss, Brynn Carman and Christopher Knierim, Brittany Chase and Andrew Speroff, Meeran Trombley and Laureano Ibarra, Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin, Amber Wehrle and Nick Kole, Stephanie Kuban and Steven Elefante, Claire Tabolt and Brendyn Hatfield and Britney Simpson and Nathan Miller.

Earlier this year, Sappenfield was approached by Sallie Simpson, Transition Coordinator for Mapleton Public Schools, about the possibility of Sappenfield's pair skating teams doing a public service activity for the school district. Simpson, the mother of Britney Simpson, one of Sappenfield's pair skating students, had implemented a special program that included ice skating lessons for the district's developmentally disabled students. Bringing Sappenfield's skaters together with these children would be something that could make the skating part of the school program into something extraordinary for the special needs children.

Sappenfield immediately agreed. One of her own brothers is disabled, so the need to give to those living with disabilities hit close to home. She said that she wanted her students to know that there is more to life than just figure skating, and she wanted her students to learn to give. She made arrangements for the event to happen at a time when all of the teams would be in the Denver area skating at another event in nearby Littleton. All of Sappenfield's teams that skate at the novice level or above were invited to take part, and all of the skaters took time from their busy lives and training schedules in order to be there.

On the morning of Friday, April 25th, the skaters helped the children lace their skates and put on their helmets. Then, it was off to the ice! The high school age students were the first to take to the ice. This group had already had introductory skating experience and were not absolute beginners. With this group, the skaters roamed the ice and helped in any way that they could. Coaches who regularly teach at the APEX Center were also on the ice. There were happy faces everywhere.

After the high school children left the ice, the entire process was again repeated with a second group. These children, the "elementary age kids," needed much more assistance. Special "ice skating walkers" made of plastic pipe were taken onto the ice. The skaters helped teach and encourage these very eager young skaters.

A very special moment occurred when Sappenfield's disabled brother decided to try ice skating for the very first time in his life. Brubaker took Sappenfield's brother, Eric, onto the ice. That moment was one that was clearly emotional for Sappenfield. Later, she said that she had thought he would never ever skate. Her skating students also reacted with excitement to see Eric on the ice.

After a lunch with the skaters and the children, the exhibition performances began. All ten pair teams took to the ice together and did a group number to "Breaking Free" from Disney's High School Musical. There were gasps of amazement from the audience as twenty skaters performed high twists, throws, and lifts. For most of the children, this was the first time they had seen champion skaters. They were obviously impressed, and they reacted as if this was the thrill of their lives.

After the group number, McLaughlin and Brubaker were introduced and did an exhibition number that included their trademark high twists, a throw triple loop, and athletic lifts. They were followed by numbers from Wehrle and Kole, Chase and Speroff, Carman and Knierim, Paetsch and Nuss, and Yankowskas and Coughlin. Then, all the pairs came out for one final bow. Sappenfield was introduced as the person who had made this day possible.

Finally, everyone gathered together for photos and good-byes. The young children clustered around Brubaker, who summed up the day: "It's amazing what we can learn from these kids."