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SABAH OUSTING FOUNDER

Elizabeth M. O'Donnell, whose name has become synonymous with the Skating Association for the Blind and Handicapped she founded in 1977, is being fired as president of the association.

In a July 13 letter, SABAH Board Chairman William P. Keefer told O'Donnell the board voted to terminate her employment on Aug. 15, unless a settlement agreement can be reached.

No reason was given.

"That's my biggest frustration," O'Donnell said. "They've never told me why. . . . You would have thought, after 28 years and all the successes, that I had job security."

Asked to comment, Keefer issued a statement Monday.

"I cannot comment on the details of personnel matters, except to say that with respect to Elizabeth O'Donnell's position, the board made a very serious and deliberate decision for the future of the organization," Keefer stated.

"The board is confident that the organization is headed in the right direction and that SABAH will be stronger than ever," he added.

To many people, O'Donnell is SABAH.

She was the association's founder, head skating instructor, chief fund-raiser, trainer of volunteers, skating show producer and spokeswoman. A former Ice Capades performer, she often skated a solo in the association's annual ice shows.

O'Donnell started teaching disabled people to skate in 1976, founding the association a year later. Since then, SABAH has grown to 700 skaters and 500 on-ice volunteers in the past year. Skaters take weekly lessons at various local rinks through the fall and winter, culminating in two ice shows that drew close to 10,000 people to HSBC Arena on March 6.

"My message to the community is, 'You saw what I did for the last 28 years. We taught over 14,000 kids,' " she said. "I don't want people to support the organization thinking that I'm still there."

O'Donnell suggested that perhaps her greatest strength -- her zeal to make SABAH and its skaters all they could be -- may have hurt her.

That passion, combined with what some describe as her aggressive personality, may have led to her downfall.

"I'm not a quiet, shy person," she said. "I am focused. I am determined. I am a get-the-job-done person. That is one of the reasons SABAH exists."

To those who have worked with her, O'Donnell is known as a woman with seemingly endless energy, extremely high standards and a booming voice. She prodded her skaters to achieve as much as they could. She also demanded a lot from her staff.

O'Donnell estimates that she averaged 60-hour work weeks for up to eight months a year.

"I clearly burned through employees in the early years, because I expected them to work as hard as me," she admitted. "Then I realized that wasn't possible. My passion for SABAH runs deeper than anyone else's, because it's something I gave birth to."

Problems with SABAH's board surfaced in January 2003, when the former board chairman told O'Donnell that she was doing too much on her own and that complaints about her had increased.

For the last 18 months, O'Donnell said, she has tried to do everything the board asked of her.

"I've worked really, really hard in the last 18 months, continuing to act in a very ladylike, professional manner," she said. "My integrity is very important to me, and I tried to do everything possible to save SABAH locally, so as not to make any people we serve suffer."

O'Donnell said she kept her focus on the kids, the skating lessons and the annual SABAH ice shows, receiving very positive feedback from the rinks. She thought that would have impressed the board.

"But I was wrong," she said. On April 26, the board suspended O'Donnell indefinitely with pay. On July 12, the board converted that to an unpaid suspension, effective July 15.

"The unpaid suspension will automatically convert to a termination from employment, effective Aug. 15, 2004," unless a settlement agreement can be reached, Keefer's letter stated.

O'Donnell, 50, said she had no interest in signing the 11-page confidential settlement agreement, which contained some assurances about not working in the same field.

Despite the suspension, O'Donnell retains her role as president of SABAH National, with chapters in Rochester, Saratoga Springs, Erie, Pa., and Findlay, Ohio.

She sees little hope in trying to fight her firing. But she doesn't plan to stop teaching disabled people to skate.

"I will continue to work with local people on the ice, as the opportunity arises," she said. "I think the volunteers in the organization will choose to do what they want. Some have indicated they would like to continue to work with me. That's their choice."

O'Donnell, who has won numerous national and local awards for SABAH's accomplishments, acknowledged that the board has the legal right to fire her. But she doesn't think it has the moral and ethical right.

"I feel such a sadness in my heart. It's almost unfathomable. It's heartbreaking to me."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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