By Harry Thompson
As the music starts and Elvis impersonator Kurt Novakowski belts out the first lines of “Viva Ice Vegas,” the sellout crowd inside the Mercyhurst University Ice Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, turns its attention to the open door at the far end of the rink. On cue, the real stars of the evening stream onto the ice, waving to families and friends as they triumphantly circle the arena.
It’s a night that is circled on the calendar, the culmination of a season of smiles and struggles, tears and triumphs. It’s the annual ice show for the Gliding Stars of Erie, Inc., a celebration of skating and the generosity of this tight-knit community.
For the next couple of hours, skaters of varying abilities will light up the ice with their mega-watt smiles as they show the local skating community how far they’ve come with a little help from their friends, which includes a small army of volunteers who outnumber the skaters by an almost two-to-one ratio.
They are here with one goal in mind, to give individuals with disabilities the opportunity to expand their potential through the development of their skating skills.
Gliding Stars of Erie, Inc., has been going strong in Western Pennsylvania for 24 years, including the past year as their own private entity. Originally part of the Gliding Stars, Inc., based out of Buffalo, New York, being on their own now provides more opportunities to enlist the support of local businesses.
“Locally, we’re fairly well known,” said Linda Allen, who has been with the organization for 18 years and serves as the executive secretary and treasurer.
“It’s one of those things where if you’re not involved in the disabled community, you may miss us, but we’re here, we have been here, and we will continue to be here,” she said.
The skating season has become an annual rite of passage that begins in mid-September and features between 60 and 80 eager skaters and usually 100 to 150 on-ice volunteers. Many of the volunteers come from local colleges and universities, including Mercyhurst, where every Monday night the on-campus rink is a hive of excited activity.
“The first couple of weeks look a little chaotic because we’re trying to match volunteers with a skater that they are comfortable with so they can develop a rapport,” Allen said.
“After we settle in, it’s pretty high energy because the skaters get excited about getting on the ice. It gets even a little higher energy the closer we get to the show because everyone is practicing their routines and wondering what their costumes will look like.”
Many of the younger skating coaches volunteer to satisfy their school’s community service requirements, and many remain involved simply because of the connections and friendships they’ve made with skaters and their families.
“We have some volunteers who have been with us from day one and others who have been with us for a year or two,” Allen said. “It kind of takes a special person to be a volunteer and especially to keep coming back.”
Allen is most impressed with the college students who show up a bit apprehensive to work with skaters with disabilities but soon turn into some of her most dedicated volunteers.
“To see a college freshman or sophomore come back when they’re not committed to getting service hours, that’s really what keeps us going,” Allen said.
It’s all part of the Erie community, where everybody seems to know everybody else, and are quick to lend a hand when asked. The season-ending ice show also includes a live band and professional skaters who love to mingle with the skaters after the show.
“We have a lot of real good partners and a lot of social agencies that promote us just like we promote them. We have a good relationship in that respect,” said Allen, who in addition to working with the Gliding Stars program also oversees a local Learn to Skate USA program which also falls under the auspices of Skating For Everyone.
After spending so many years watching her son Maury skate as a competitive ice dancer, the retired telecommunications employee is happy to do her part to raise the next generation of skaters. Allen works closely with the program’s executive director, Linda Althof, who has been a long-time educator and skating coach.
“Basically, it comes down to the fact that I have the time and the ability to help,” Allen said. “It’s just a personal satisfaction that I get doing something that actually makes a difference for somebody else.”
That difference is on full display as skaters and volunteers line up at center ice for one final wave to family and friends before taking a victory lap around the ice as “We Are The Champions” echoes from the rafters. It’s a fitting end to another successful season that brings the Erie community together through its love of skating.