At 5 pm every Friday, one of the rinks at Sharks Ice at San Jose is turned over to an unlikely bunch of amateur skaters: children with special needs. Offering a beginning class and a hockey program, the Special Needs Skate gives local kids who otherwise would not have the opportunity a chance to have fun and exercise.
Originally started as an alternative to traditional occupational therapy, the program grew to include kids with a range of physical or developmental disabilities. The program is entirely run by volunteers, and if a child’s family is unable to pay the fee ($25 for a 12 week session), volunteers and Sharks Ice staff usually find a sponsor.
During the one-hour session, the ice sheet is divided into two sections, one-third for free skating and two-thirds for hockey.
“The kids want to start playing hockey right away,” said assistant director Joan Best. “It’s a real incentive for them to learn. We had one little boy who stood himself up, hit the puck, fell down, got himself back up. Every time he took a swing, he fell down, but he never gave up.”
Special Needs Skate is entirely run by volunteers. Some have backgrounds in special education; others are ice hockey players from Bellarmine College Preparatory or other local high schools.
“You have to be a good enough skater not to fall on the kids, and your skating will definitely improve,” Best commented.
Children enrolled in the program are entitled to have one family member skate with them. “That helps when they are just starting out but as they get better, they want to skate with the other kids.”
The program has been very successful and its classes are currently full.
“Special needs kids don’t have a lot of opportunities for physical recreation” said Best, “but more then the fun and exercise, they learn good sportsmanship. We aren’t about winning or losing, our goal is for everyone to participate.”
The program exists because of the hard work of Best and Program Director Jeff Hofmann, who donates more than his time. While Sharks Ice provides skates and helmets to the kids who need them, Hofmann brings the other supplies. When there are more skaters than volunteers, the kids go on the ice with walkers.
“We use walkers or chairs, whatever works. But it’s best when the skaters can get one-on-one attention,” said Best. “What happens is that the kids fall in love with skating. They sometimes get their own skates and sticks.”
The young participants became part of the skating boom that has struck the Bay Area since the San Jose Sharks arrived in 1991. Since then, Sharks Ice has grown into a veritable “Super-Site” that is home to 5,000 registered skaters and hockey players, nationally recognized hockey teams, figure skaters, ice dancers, a curling team, and 30 special needs kids who never imagined that they would be slamming a puck into the net.
For more information on the Special Needs Skate program or the Sharks Ice facility, visit www.sharksiceatsanjose.com