Bundled in coats and clutching cups of hot coffee, parents chatter while their kids glide across the ice rink in Rockville.
But the Montgomery County parents aren’t talking much about playing time or stick-handling skills, instead using the opportunity as a sort of weekend therapy session. They talk about their children’s medical problems. They fret over the embarrassing emotional tantrums their children have in public. And they complain to one another about how hard it is find the right classroom for their children, who may have autism, can’t speak or will never know how to read.
It’s hockey season for the Montgomery Cheetahs, a team for children with special needs, which is now in its eighth season as it returns to Cabin John Ice Rink for practice this month.
“It’s something to look forward to every weekend,” said Satellite Crane, the mother of two boys on the team. “This is a place where you [feel] loved and accepted. You don’t have to worry about how your kid is going to act and what other parents are thinking about when your kid has a meltdown.”
The team sprang from a Montgomery County family’s bar mitzvah project, and the Cheetahs started small. The team had 10 players, two coaches and a few volunteers. The hope was that the children would enjoy playing the game and get a little exercise, head coach David Lucia said.
But the team has blossomed into something much more. There are now about 80 Cheetahs with varying developmental disabilities and a team of mentors who volunteer to guide some players around the ice.
Lucia said the Cheetahs are open to everyone, regardless of what disability the children have or how much help they need.
“All are welcome,” Lucia said. “All they need to have is a desire to play, and we’ll do our best to grow them all at their own rate, both socially and their hockey skills, so that they become more self-reliant and more confident.”
Lucia’s son, also named David, is 16 years old and one of the original Cheetahs.
David, who likes to talk about Disney movies and concedes to having trouble focusing in school, said his time on the ice has helped in and out of the classroom.
“You learn to be patient, be polite, have manners and be careful and listen, too,” David said during one Saturday morning practice.
David’s mom, Mildred Bonilla Lucia, said the team has boosted her son’s social skills, teaching him about personal distance and paying attention when other people talk.
“There’s a sense of satisfaction when you see a kid with disabilities have the same opportunities the other kids have,” Bonilla Lucia said. “It’s not about what he cannot do, but what he can do.”
The team has done more than just help kids. Parents like Ed and Satellite Crane have found the Cheetahs to be a place where adults find a sense of belonging, too.
Ed Crane coordinates the team of mentors that helps players like his son Arjuna, 12, who need extra help on the ice. His son Aramis, 10, a goalie, has a learning disability.
The team allows the parents to briefly forget about the pressures of having children with special needs, which can take an emotional and financial toll, Ed Crane said. The Cranes have spent tens of thousands of dollars on medical treatment, home schooling and therapies for their children. And the family of five lives in a modest two-bedroom condo to make sure they have enough money to pay for medical treatment and extra educational work to help improve their children’s lives.
“We take all our resources and pump it into the kids,” Ed Crane said.
But at the ice rink on Saturdays, the Cranes can lean on other parents and unburden themselves. They’ve been doing it for the past seven years and they plan to keep going for years to come.
“It’s a place where you can go and talk about problems and you do not have to feel guilty about it because other parents really understand what’s going on,” Satellite Crane said. “We’re so thankful we have found the Montgomery Cheetahs.”