City Shaper: Elizabeth O’Donnell

O’Donnell started Gliding Stars to help people with disabilities learn how to skate & learn new skills.

Author: Kelly Dudzik – Dec. 23, 2019

TONAWANDA, N.Y. — We’re celebrating the women who are making Western New York shine in our City Shapers reports this year. This week, 2 On Your Side’s Kelly Dudzik shows us how a Western New York native is helping people with disabilities excel on the ice.

Elizabeth O’Donnell is the Founder and President of Gliding Stars. O’Donnell grew up in Buffalo and lives in Hamburg.

O’Donnell started Gliding Stars more than forty years ago and was inspired by her childhood best friend’s brother who was non-verbal. Gliding Stars is a skating program for people who are challenged by any type of disability. It’s also a non-profit.

“I toured with the Ice Capades, I was in the World Professional Championships many years ago as a pro, and so skating I’ve done for ever and ever, and I realized as a young adult that it might be helpful for people with disabilities to learn how to skate,” says O’Donnell.

Gliding Stars has grown to include thousands of families with chapters in five states.

“What’s it like to see somebody just open up and their world comes alive when they’re on the ice?” asked Dudzik.

“It makes your heart just flood with joy, you know, it’s really cool. And, sometimes on the sling walker, a little kid will come that’s never been able to move on their own, and the ice is slippery, so there’s a viscosity of ice that’s very different than the ground, and they’ll get in this walker that completely supports their weight, we call it the sling seat, their little toe picks will get in the ice and all of the sudden, their little face goes, and they never moved before on their own, people are always moving them. That’s really fun,” says O’Donnell.

“What’s the reaction like from the families?” asked Dudzik.

“Hope. You know? They have a sense of hope again because it’s hard, I mean, the families they have these kids that go through surgery after surgery, and it’s really hard for them, you know, so I have a lot of empathy for those families, and I’m happy to be able to help them in some way,” says O’Donnell.

O’Donnell organizes fundraisers throughout the year and the big ice show in the spring. She also has an equipment company. Rinks across the country buy her walkers to make skating accessible to everyone.

“What kind of advice do you have for someone who wants to do what you’re doing?” asked Dudzik.

“Go for it. Find something that speaks to your heart, and just don’t be afraid,” says O’Donnell.

Backstage at the Ice Capades

Ready for Any Emergency, Backstage at the Ice Capades
LA Times – May 1, 1970
By Arlene Van Breems – Times Staff Writer

Year after year the Ice Capades moves from city to city.  Tonight is the official opening night in Los Angeles.  The skaters will be on ice at the Sports Arena through May 17th.

The 80 skaters have moved into hotels, apartments and sometimes their family homes for their stay – it is one of the longest runs they have.

Suitcases are as much a part of their lives as the skates they wear.  Everything, almost, that cannot walk is on wheels – props, office file cabinets, wardrobes and massive wig containers.

Backstage, the Ice Capades is not a very glamourous place.  Faces, heavy with stage makeup, look tired.  The icy atmosphere is warmed by cups of coffee and short, sometimes terry cloth bathrobes worn between costumes.

Being close-up to the skaters makes their black and blue marks visible.  It is easier to fall on the cement backstage than the ice out front.  Rubber skate guards, rubberized mats and plywood boards keep them upright most of the time, but not always.  Robert Daily, wardrobe supervisor, sits at his sewing machine on wheels making last minute adjustments on costumes.  “Some of the prima donnas in the show get ideas at the last minute,:” said Daily.

Zippers break, and skaters sometimes need to be sewn into their costumes.  Daily has two cupboards full of sewing necessities.  “Drawers full of thread, hooks and eyes by the thousands and a big box of feathers – turkey, chicken, pheasant, you name it.”

Wardrobe mistress Miss Lena DeCiantis has large safety pins fastened to the top of her apron.  “The skaters’ straps on their headpieces might be too long,’ she said.

Miss DeCiantis keeps one eye on the skaters and another on her staff of dressers, women hired in each city to help with the costumes.

“We must have 550 costumes in all, or it is 450-I’m not sure,” said Miss DeCiantis.  Each one is lined up according to the act in which it appears and also numbered to the skater who will wear it.
Headpieces affixed to wigs are numbered also.  They are heavy, loaded with plastic flowers, feathered plumes, paste jewelry and sometimes bows.

The wig headpieces are the last part of the costume to go on the skater.  Heavy and scratchy with almost strangling elastic fasteners, they are uncomfortable to wear.
Once ready, skaters line up in front of mirrors checking faces, wigs and smiles.  One quick glance goes to check the seams of net stockings.

Then they line up in the wings.  The feature performers, oftentimes in scantier costumes, pace back and forth and practice turns on the small strip of ice behind the curtain.

“Moving helps to keep warm’ said Mitsuko Funakoshi, a featured performer who stars in two acts.
Los Angeles is her home town so her mother is backstage to visit before the show.  This is her fifth year in the Ice Capades.

She enjoys the work and will continue for ‘as long as it is profitable,’ said Miss Funakoshi’.  But I would like to settle down and become a housewife – a normal life sounds terrific to me now.’