U.S. Figure Skating Online will feature a different club-related story every couple weeks in the Club Spotlight.
Adult Skating Committee Chair and Coach Gail Sombati wanted to spread an important message about Autism, and this dedicated coach created a special skating exhibition to do just that.
Sombati coaches at her home club, the Wyandotte Figure Skating Club in Wyandotte, Mich. and is also the Special Needs Coordinator and teaches Moves-in-the-Field and adult classes at the City of Southgate Rink. She created Adults for Autism, a not-for-profit organization, in 2009 to raise awareness. For Sombati, the cause is near and dear to her heart. Her son Sam has Autism.
"The Autism diagnosis is growing at lightning speed in children," Sombati said. "Children with Autism grow into adults but they won't grow out of Autism. There is a place for everyone in this world. I would like to spread the 'It's OK to be different message".
The first Adults for Autism event (the name, her husband Doug actually came up with) took place in April, 2009. Sombati, previously chaired three adult sectionals and nonqualifying adult competitions, and proudly serves as a member of the Special Olympics/Therapeutic Skating Committee for U.S. Figure Skating. She wanted to do something on ice for her cause.
"I approached my good friend and boss at the time, Jennifer Campau," Sombati said. "She was all for it, and she was the one that actually suggested we could donate some funds toward Autism awareness. Jennifer is also the director of the VIP Special Needs Camp. Needless to say I was thrilled and very grateful."
The first event was an adult competition. About 50 skaters participated and skaters came as far away as Minnesota to take part.
"Adult skaters are a caring bunch," Sombati said. "Nearly everyone who came expressed their enthusiasm of wanting to skate for a great cause." The first event also included a mini exhibition of skaters who had Autism or who have been affected by Autism in some way. Some skaters were currently competing and others were from the area.
"My son Sam and I skated as Lilo and Stitch," Sombati said. "It was very special."
Sombati also recalls the enthusiasm and generosity of the officials who attended that first event.
""I will never forget the generosity of one official, the late Laura Maki. Laura was going through treatment for a rare form of stomach cancer. However, that did not deter her from participating or volunteering her time to officiate and give back her love to skating. As I was going through the expense sheets to reimburse the officials for their travel, Laura's sheet had the amount she incurred but with a note that said "Donate to Autism". My eyes immediately filled with tears because I knew she was going through her own battle, not only fighting for her life, but with the expenses that go with it. I couldn't hug her enough. I will never, ever, forget that."
For the past three years, Adults for Autism sponsored an exhibition with skaters of all ages and abilities called "Artistry for Autism".
"We still have the silent auction, no elite skaters yet but that is my goal," Sombati said. "Living in the Detroit area is a huge advantage because we have such great athletes and coaches in the immediate area."
Sombati is most proud that Adults for Autism has been able to raise money and sponsor the VIP Special Needs Camp.
"The VIP Camp is a special needs summer day camp that enables individuals with disabilities to participate in recreational activities during the summer, while giving their parents and caregivers a much needed break ,knowing their loved ones are in a safe, secure and fun environment. The camp is open to individuals from ages 8-to-26 diagnosed with any disability," Sombati said.
"Artistry for Autism" hopes to grow in the future to include headline guest skaters.
"The "Artistry for Autism" event is a yearly event that is held in an ice rink in the area," she said. "It is not tied to a specific rink. I can see it growing into two events in one year in the future , maybe a 'Have Cause, Will Skate' type of focus. The possibilities are really endless when you have a vision and people behind you helping you."
Whatever the future holds, Sombati wants to spread the message that it is ok is to embrace diversity.
"Diversity is what makes us what we are," Sombati said. "Whether it is a difference from a disability, injury or lifestyle choice acceptance needs to be the norm and not the exception in every area of life."
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