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SABAH is Where Everyone Belongs

The ice in the rink may be cold, but it’s no match for the warm hearts found at Skating Athletes Bold At Heart (SABAH). This program, founded in 1977, is dedicated to promoting inclusion as they enrich the quality of life for people with physical, cognitive, and/or emotional disabilities through education and therapeutic recreation, fitness, and social and communication skills development.

SABAH celebrates their 47th season serving the disabled in the Western New York community. Over 830 people participate in six year-round programs, and they have expanded their physical activity and wellness programs with the help of more than 500 volunteers from the region.

Through their programs, athletes develop skills for independent living and foster a healthy lifestyle by participating in physical education and therapeutic recreation weekly. With their specialized instruction and adaptive equipment, this is the only program of its kind in the United States.

Like many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic forced SABAH to innovate and find ways to serve their athletes despite the extra challenges. Executive director Sheila O’Brien explains that they started a new program, the Outdoor Series, a partnership with the New York State Parks Department, that gives athletes the opportunity to explore their environment through activities such as birding, nature hikes, beach walks, and snowshoeing. “It’s just one more venue and one more way to create healthy lifestyles and inclusion to all,” O’Brien says.

SABAH also provides adaptive turf-based physical education over the summer months, with a curriculum specially designed for children with cognitive and/or physical disabilities as well as economic disadvantages in local schools.

With Fit and Fun, SABAH’s newest program, adults receive physical education. Physical problems caused by sedentary lifestyles are particularly prevalent in adults with disabilities. A lack of adaptive physical education and recreational activities in our society contributes to obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. During the summer months, they do activities such as volleyball, disc golf, t-ball, football, floor hockey, and other “family-style” backyard games. Ice skating is, of course, also available during the winter. The program provides opportunities for socialization, greater independence, and increased self-esteem, as well as the benefits of physical activity. SABAH collaborates with several group homes and adult day habilitation facilities in the region, where over 110 adults with disabilities have benefited after just two years.

In their Evening and Weekend program, individuals of any age can learn adaptive ice skating. The program works in conjunction with thirteen school districts in the area. The program is offered weekly from October through March at four locations, including the Bud Bakewell Riverside Rink, the Northtown Center at Amherst, the Hamburg Town Rink, and Niagara University’s Dwyer Arena. During each session, instructors teach basic skating skills, play games, provide free time, and everyone has a great time.

The School Day Adaptive Ice Skating program provides ice skating lessons and events to students who are economically challenged and physically, cognitively, or emotionally disabled. Each session includes basic skating skills, games, free time, and a lot of fun! Observing the importance of ice skating, O’Brien notes the skills gained and the sense of pride the athletes get once they succeed in the rink.

“[With] skating, you have to use everything. You have to use all parts of your body, your balance, and your mind. So, it’s really kind of all-encompassing,” O’Brien says, “It is something I think is intimidating to a lot of people, and once they are able to conquer their fears and really start to progress, I think it’s something that’s really empowering for them in other facets of their lives.”


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