By Paige Feigenbaum
Sandhya Mahesh has a naturally philanthropic soul. This trait earned the Texas teen the Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award for her involvement in Skate Therapy, her Houston area rink’s adaptive skating program for students ages four and up with physical and developmental disabilities.
“We all know that the sports world is very hard on minorities in general, of course women, but also people with disabilities, so it’s very inspiring to see how she really, really worked to build up people that were minorities in their respective sport,” Mahesh said of the glass ceiling-shattering International Tennis Hall of Fame member.
According to the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative’s website, the award “celebrates and honors young people who are using the power of sport as a catalyst for change and making a positive impact on society.” As one of 10 regional winners, Mahesh received a $2,500 scholarship, which she is grateful to put towards her tuition at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is enrolled in a dual degree program in business and computer science. The three national honorees each got a $10,000 scholarship and attended the 2023 ESPY Awards.
“They’ve been impacting thousands of people and it’s really, really cool,” she said of the national honorees. “It’s definitely inspiring and I’m hoping to start a Skate Therapy chapter in Philly where I’m moving for college. I hope to grow our organization to someday have a national impact.”
Elizabeth “B.L.” Wylie, Paul Wylie’s mom, founded Skate Therapy at Sugar Land Ice and Sports Center in Sugar Land, Texas and an alumni launched a chapter at a rink in College Station, Texas. Mahesh also partially credits her passion for Skate Therapy for helping her get accepted into the Ivy League institution. She found a college application essay question asking how she contributed to her community easy to answer.
The 18-year-old from the Houston suburb of Pearland, Texas began skating at age three or four and has been involved in Skate Therapy for five years. She’s worked with approximately 30 students who have autism, Down syndrome, blindness and balance issues caused by a stroke, and has witnessed her own grandfather who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease struggle with coordination.
“His diagnosis has made me want to impact these students more,” she said. “One thing that I’ve noticed coaching with Skate Therapy is that I’m able to see the growth of these students in terms of their coordination and confidence with balance. Outside of the rink they don’t really get much time to do physical activity and strengthen different muscle groups because a lot of them have physical disabilities, so skating is not only a chance to improve their physical strength and motor skills, but they also learn how to power through things.”
When a new student enrolls, Mahesh and the other coaches make a point to talk to the skater’s parents or guardians to learn about their condition and specific needs, if special accommodations need to be made, how to best communicate with them and what they are looking to improve.
Off the ice, Mahesh uses her musical prowess as a pianist and violist to raise upwards of $6,000 for Skate Therapy to assist with the cost of ice time, rental skates and adaptive equipment. With younger sister Tanya Mahesh, a fellow skater and musician, she co-founded Chords for a Cause, which hosts Rhythm on Ice concerts. Skate Therapy coaches and local musicians perform at small venues, such as schools, churches or virtually to raise money for the cause.
By clocking 400 volunteer hours, Skate Therapy contributed to Mahesh earning the President’s Gold Volunteer Service Award. She also received the Congressional Gold Medal, which takes physical activity, personal development and community service into consideration.
As inspiring as Mahesh finds Billie Jean King, the same can be said about the 18-year-old who has touched and influenced so many lives in only five years at her ice rink. It just goes to show how much impact one teenager, or person of any age, can make. An Olympic medal or Grand Slam trophy, while helpful, is not necessary to give you a platform to amplify a message close to your heart.