By JOEY WALDINGER
For years, Sophie Ballard sat in the stands at her siblings’ hockey games, itching to get on the ice. Ballard has cognitive disabilities that affect her balance and motor skills, so she has never had the opportunity to learn how to skate. That is, until her mother Jennifer learned of a woman teaching adaptive ice skating lessons in South Burlington.
Now, once every week, Ballard straps on her skates and glides onto the ice where she challenges herself physically and mentally while enjoying a camaraderie largely absent from her daily life.
“She’s happier and far more confident,” her mother said.
Sophie Ballard is one of 10 children who go to Cairns Arena at Veterans Memorial Park every Wednesday for skating lessons led by Sara Kruk, a Shelburne resident who started a directory of services and activities for children with special needs.
Kruk created the resource, called Kayla’s Directory, after realizing not only how difficult it was to find inclusive activities for her daughter, Kayla, but how many parents face similar challenges.
“I wanted one central site where people could find different programs for their kids and more activities to do,” Kruk said. “I just wanted more opportunities for families.”
Kayla’s Directory started small, at first offering only running lessons, but it has expanded and now offers a host of sports and arts programs, including the ice skating lessons at Cairns arena.
Every week, Catherine and Joe Royea drive with their daughter, Abigail, from Montpelier to Cairns Arena to take part in Kruk’s lessons. Abigail had never been on skates before starting her lessons with Kruk, but she has loved every second spent on the ice and the benefits have been plentiful, her parents said.
Due to complications from being born prematurely, Abigail has weak muscle tone and the skating helps keep her strong while having fun, her parents said.
Jennifer Ballard said she has seen her daughter, Sophie, benefit in similar ways. She said Sophie works muscles while skating that she might not otherwise use, and when she comes off the ice she is covered head to toe in sweat.
“She’s using muscles she’s never used before,” Ballard said.
Besides the necessary exercise, the lessons also provide a social outlet that the parents and Kruk agree is just as important.
One of the skaters, Lily Schutz, attends public school where she interacts with very few children with special needs, said her mom, Kristin. Lily enjoys the education she receives and the friends she has made, but it still boosts her confidence to be so active alongside kids with similar abilities while skating, her mom said.
“Just getting out and being social with peers who all have different abilities definitely does a lot to show her there’s a lot of kids that are just like her,” Schutz said.
Though the rewards of learning to skate are high, they are not always easily earned, Kruk said.
Many of the participants do not have the same stamina or strength as neurotypical children, and so learning how to skate requires extra patience, she said.
“It will come, it just takes a lot of time,” Kruk said.
She emphasizes that any progress taken towards learning to skate, no matter how large or small, is still a step in the right direction.
“Some kids that have a hard time with transitions just sat on the bench for the first couple of lessons and got their skates on. And that’s fine,” she said.
The lessons also offer some catharsis to parents, Kruk said. She recruits volunteers from the local community to assist her in the lessons, so parents are given a break from their obligations and an opportunity to connect with one another as they watch their children zip around the ice, she said.
The local community supports the lessons financially as well, as Kruk pays for ice time and all other Kayla’s Directory programs with money donated through various fundraisers, she said.
The current round of lessons ends in March, but many of those currently enrolled are intent on getting back on the ice when the next session starts back up.
That includes Sophie Ballard, who is so taken with the sport that she now has her own hockey bag and jersey, her mother Jennifer said.
“For Sophie, it’s about having something of her own that she can do like other, typical kids,” Jennifer said. “She tells everybody, ‘I do it myself.’”