COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Thomas DiPretore is gliding across the ice with one of the biggest grins you have ever seen.
The Lewis-Palmer Middle School eighth grader is holding tight to a metal walker, and a volunteer is offering a helping hand. Several other students are circling the ice rink at Colorado College, some in wheel chairs, some with walkers, some going it alone with a bit of help.
There is an impromptu race, and the kids whoop it up as they hurry towards the finish line.
"Yes," Thomas says enthusiastically, when asked if skating is fun.
This fun is actually an important part of the special education program at Lewis-Palmer School District 38.
The adapted physical education classes include equine therapy, bowling, swimming and gymnastics.
"We were looking for activities that would benefit certain students physically, emotionally and cognitively," says Dena Sikole, who heads the D-38 program.
Most of the students have substantial medical, orthopedic and neurological conditions. Therapeutic skating can help breathing and improve circulation and balance, posture and overall strength as well as help the students become more outgoing as they gain confidence and self-esteem.
Another plus is that the students learn new skills that can further their social lives. "It's something they will be able to do with their families and peers," Sikole said.
About 60 of the district 550 special education students are enrolled.
When the district started the adapted physical education program, particularly skating and gymnastics, some wondered how the students, who often have balance issues, would fare, noted Sikole.
But the classes focusing on independence, some which started years ago, have been a success.
The cost of such activities is not cheap, so many school districts do not offer this type of physical education. D-38 has cobbled together district money, grants and donations to make it happen.
The students in Adapted PE also are enrolled in their school's regular physical education classes, said Mary Anne Fleury, director of exceptional student services.
Fleury explained that students are chosen for the adapted PE classes depending on what the activity is, how well the student could participate and how it fits with their individual special education plan.
Outside therapeutic organizations provide the programs, and sometimes district physical therapists, parents and other volunteers assist.
The ice skating class, for example, is taught by Pam Nearhoof, a former college ice dancer who is founder of C3 Therapeutic Skating ("Challenge yourself, Conquer the goal, find your Confidence.")
Nearhoff says, "It can be very difficult. When I first started, I cried every day." But now, she says, "It's satisfying to see how happy they are." C3 also has programs for senior citizens, wounded warriors, those with chemical dependencies, psychological problems, and balance or coordination problems.
Nearhoof is helped by staff, and volunteers that include retired coaches and skaters.
C3 volunteer Marilyn Seamans, who skated in college, helped Thomas on the ice. "He has put in so much effort. I'm amazed at how far he has come in three weeks."
Another volunteer, Nelson Kent, a retired computer technician, recalls one girl who wouldn't step onto the ice the first time out. The next time, she rode around in a wheelchair. Now she is skating with help of a walker. "She's about ready to go out on her own," Kent says.
The C3 program recently received a $2,000 grant from the U.S. Skating Association to be used for ice time, which is expensive. The program is based on U.S. Skating's therapeutic skating badge curriculum, which has 14 levels to benefit temporary or permanently disabled skaters.
D-38 also searches out grants and donations to help with student participation fees. Donors have included Tri-Lakes Women's Club, Monument Hill Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, Kohl's and others.
Parents are enthusiastic.
Stephanie DiPretore, said her son Thomas has always loved to watch ice hockey. "It's a sport that even able-bodied athletes have trouble with, but he wanted to skate. The first time on the ice he fell, but got right back up. This has been great for his balance. And he loves that he can succeed."
She says she herself is nervous to get on the ice. "He is the bravest one in our family."