The word "SABAH" was one of Tyrnell Marks' first words. When Tyrnell, soon to be 10 years old, began ice skating with the Skating Association for the Blind and Handicapped five years ago, his speech was limited. However, "SABAH" quickly became a regular word in his vocabulary.
Allison Baker, 8, has progressed the past three years from ice skating with two teachers, one on each side, to skating on her own. "She is a lot more motivated, and she has come a long way. Now she needs to teach me!," jokes her mom, Michelle Baker.
Tyrnell, who is autistic (autism is a lifelong developmental disability that interferes with communication, learning and social skills with a wide range of degree and intensity), and Allison, who is developmentally delayed, ice-skate with Buffalo Public School 65, one of the schools involved with SABAH, every Wednesday morning at Buffalo State College.
They have improved dramatically, both physically and emotionally, their parents say.
Allison gets a very good workout from ice skating. When she first started, she didn't even need to wear a winter jacket because she would get so warm. "She is really, really tired after ice skating, but it has strengthened the muscles in her legs," says Michelle.
Each autistic individual has an area of ability. Ice skating is Tyrnell's talent. As a result of his dedication, his ice skating ability surpasses some of the teachers he skates with!
"His confidence has soared! Ice skating makes him feel good about himself, and it reflects in his mood and in his school work," says Angela Marks, Tyrnell's mom.
While the average child has a wide range of activities to choose from -- from Little League baseball to ballet -- children with disabilities are not as fortunate. SABAH provides a fun atmosphere that allows people with disabilities to build up their self-confidence, independence, physical endurance, coordination and strength.
Neither Michelle nor Angela care that SABAH takes time away from traditional school work, agreeing that their children benefit from working with different adults while getting exercise and having fun.
Both Tyrnell and Allison look forward to SABAH and talk about it the night before skating: "We have SABAH in the morning!" Tyrnell will exclaim.
Their teacher, Ann Januszkiewicz, also loves Wednesdays. The positive energy in the classroom the moment the children enter -- and start talking about leaving their boots on and hanging their coats over their chairs rather than in the closet -- is contagious: "It's a great way to motivate the students. My class is a small group with a focus on communication. The best way to get a child to talk, read and write is to start with something that motivates them. Their experience with SABAH has been exciting and memorable. Tyrnell still talks about the amazing SpongeBob costumes he wanted to wear and our year as 'Blue' from Blues Clues," she said.
"One Wednesday, Tyrnell was sick, and despite his pleading, he had to miss a skating session. He was disappointed the entire day," his mom says.
Lisa Reinhart, rink captain for the Pepsi Center weekend skaters, makes sure her whole family is involved. Her husband, son and daughter volunteer, and her youngest son will volunteer when he's older. Her other daughter, Emily, who is 14, has multiple disabilities. She has been a Star for 10 years! "I love SABAH; I can't wait to go every week!" she says.
SABAH Stars and their families aren't the only ones who enjoy the program. While many teens need volunteer hours to graduate, many volunteer for SABAH who don't need the hours, too. "I've volunteered for the past four years with my best friend, but I've only needed community service hours for school this year," says Mari-Jo Brunetto, a Pepsi Center volunteer and a senior at Amherst Central. "It worked out well because even if I didn't need to volunteer for school, I would have anyway."
Past SABAH Stars can also volunteer. Ralph Jones Jr., 20, is a SABAH volunteer after having being a Star for two years through Buffalo Public School 44.
"This is my first year volunteering, and I'll probably volunteer every year if I have the time," he says. "I recommend SABAH to people with disabilities or to people who want to volunteer." As SABAH's annual show nears, SABAH Stars and volunteers are excited about showing off their hard work. "The show is the highlight of the skating season," says Lisa. "I can't wait to wear my costume!" adds Tyrnell.
Justine Januskewicz is a senior at Amherst Central.
SABAH Skates to the Top 40 Hits at 2 p.m. Sunday at HSBC Arena. 100-level seats are $10; 200-level seats are $5. For tickets, call 888-223-6000 or go to www.tickets.com. For more information, call the SABAH office at 675-7222.