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  • Writer's pictureLV Winter Classic Facebook post spurs donations for unique Lehigh Valley hockey program

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Andrea Figura-Ritter never thought she would see her daughter, Hayley, donning hockey gear at the Steel Ice Center in Bethlehem.

Hayley, 5, has autism and experiences social, communication and behavioral challenges.

But Hayley is the youngest member of the Lehigh Valley Polar Bears ice hockey team and Special Hockey of the Lehigh Valley, a recreational program for children and young adults with autism, Down syndrome and other physical and cognitive challenges.

The program is run by a team of passionate volunteers who work year-round to meet the unique needs of players on and off the ice.

But the supportive environment has grown well beyond parents, family members and volunteers, and over the past few weeks has been lifted by an entire community.

  • A Facebook post on the Lehigh Valley Food group soliciting donations for the Lehigh Valley Polar Bears spurred donations from across the area

  • The Polar Bears are part of Special Hockey of the Lehigh Valley, a recreational program for children and young adults with autism, Down syndrome and other physical and cognitive challenges

  • The Polar Bears will be part of the Lehigh Valley Winter Classic on Feb. 4 — their largest fundraiser of the year

It all started with a Facebook post.

“My daughter is on the Lehigh Valley Polar Bears ice hockey team,” Figura-Ritter wrote in the Lehigh Valley Food group on Jan. 4. “Once a year they have one big fundraiser where the parents need to donate a basket. I picked the wine basket to donate. I was wondering if anybody in this group owns a winery that would be willing to donate a bottle of wine or gift card towards the basket?”

Then, she clicked Facebook’s blue ‘post’ button and sent the message out to the group’s nearly 55,000 members.

“I thought about it," Figura-Ritter wrote. "I'm like, ‘Should I post? Should I not post?’ But I’m like, ‘What's the worst that can happen?’ I’ll get a list of wineries. I can take a Saturday, kind of drive around, introduce myself and see if somebody would be willing to donate anything.”

Instead, within minutes, the post had dozens of comments.

And over the next few days, it grew to hundreds, with business owners across the region — from places such as The Udder Bar, Tolino Vineyards, The Iron Mule restaurant and Seven Sirens Brewing, to name a few — offering bottles, glasses, engraved tumblers, gift cards, baskets, supplies and more.

“As a mom of a beautiful boy with a rare syndrome called Angelman Syndrome, I’m literally in tears reading all the support and kindness,” a comment on the post said.

“This is a very lonely and isolated world for our kiddos and caregivers. God bless you all.”

Just as the Facebook community has lifted the Polar Bears, the team has lifted Hayley and filled Andrea and her husband, Jon, with gratitude.

“We were just looking for additional activities to put [Hayley] in,” Andrea Figura-Ritter said. “We found swim lessons that worked for her, but Jon was an ice hockey player through high school and college for Moravian University. So we were speaking to Hayley’s behavioral therapist and she suggested the Polar Bears.

"We looked online and saw it was for kids with special-needs, and she didn’t have to know how to skate or have any type of skills.”

Figura-Ritter described the organization as “extremely welcoming and extremely helpful,” with coaches and volunteers showing a kindness and patience not always found outside of the autism community.

“It’s hard to find activities for Hayley," Figura-Ritter said. “We take our child who may have some additional behaviors, and then everybody’s looking at you like, ‘Well, why is your kid screaming in the middle of the soccer field?’ Or, you know, ‘Why aren’t they participating like my kids are participating? But here with the Polar Bears we have zero judgment.”

Like all kids, Figura-Ritter said Hayley has good days and bad days. But on the ice, donning a helmet and pads, she’s a regular kid developing new skills and building strong bonds with her teammates.

“Last Sunday, she just decided she was going to sit in the middle of the ice and just scream at the poor high school kid trying to help her skate,” Figura-Ritter said. “But they’re very patient with her. They know how to work with her. And the other kids on the team will circle around her.”

And hockey has spilled over into Hayley’s mastering of daily life skills, Jon Ritter said.

“When we first took her to get fitted for all the equipment, she just wanted it off,” he said. “But now, you know, four or five practices in, she’s asking to put the stuff on and she knows what order to put her equipment on. She’s asking to put her helmet on and she knows, ‘I need to wear this.’

"It helps when winter comes, because now she can put jackets on a little easier and doesn’t fight us as much. She’ll wear beanies and gloves because she’s used to wearing hockey gloves. It’s been so beneficial in multiple areas.”

‘Nobody needs to feel alone’

Joe Guellnitz, president of the Polar Bears, said he's proud to be part of a program that seeks to build confidence, foster friendships, and provide a supportive environment for all players and their families.

“My wife, Nicole, and I founded the organization together," Guellnitz said. "We just are passionate about basically giving back to the community and hockey as well.

“I grew up playing hockey, my wife and I met through hockey, and I coached, mostly in the high school level, for a while and then learned about special hockey as a general idea, through my training of becoming a coach with USA Hockey.

“I just got super inspired about the idea that there's a type of hockey out there that's catered to people with special needs and learning how much it does for those individuals, and how much it means for them. Not only on the ice, but off the ice as well...they’re making friends, getting more confident and having fun. And just the impact of hearing what it does for people really inspired me.”

“I just got super inspired about the idea that there's a type of hockey out there that's catered to people with special needs and learning how much it does for those individuals, and how much it means for them. Not only on the ice, but off the ice as well..."

Joe Guellnitz, president of the Lehigh Valley Polar Bears

In 2015, Guellnitz said he and his wife got to the point where they were asking themselves, “Why doesn't this exist in our community? And why not give it a shot? So we gave it a shot. And here we are.”

All members of the Polar Bears are provided with assistive equipment and work one-on-one with volunteer coaches until they’re ready to skate on their own. Rules found in traditional hockey are adapted to make the game safer and more enjoyable for all.

There are no registration or ice fees for participants.

“I don't have any personal connection to special needs,” Guellnitz said. “It was just something that, like I said, resonated to me through learning about what it can do for that community of people. As a hockey coach who was learning about all the different types of hockey that were out there… this kind of just seemed like an awesome fit of a nice little overlap between being able to give back, but also still connected to a sport we love.”

The Winter Classic

The upcoming Winter Classic on Feb. 4 at Bethlehem’s Municipal Ice Rink is the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year and the reason Figura-Ritter turned to Facebook to solicit donations, with the baskets and other items set to be auctioned off throughout the event.

“Last year in a single day, it resulted in $70,000 raised; it was just shy of $70,000,” Guellnitz said. Overall, the event has raised a total of more than $315,000 donated to special hockey in the area since The Winter Classic was started by a group of five guys who play for the Lehigh Valley Whalers, an adult ice hockey team.

“What the team that created this event was looking for [was that] they really wanted it to stay within the hockey community,” Guellnitz said. “So when we came around, they were like, ‘This is exactly what we're looking for. We want it to benefit local community hockey.' So they found us and said, ‘Hey, we'd love to have you guys be the beneficiary.' And the story wrote itself from there.”

That the story now includes a Facebook post and a community stepping up and embracing the Polar Bears is humbling for Guellnitz, but not surprising to Christina Russo, a special-needs mom and the founder of Lehigh Valley Food.

“As a community, we have to support what little there is for our special-needs community and that is why Lehigh Valley Food will always be a platform for our special-needs community,” Russo said in an email. “If I can’t use the platform I built to help others, what good is it?”

And so what started out as a food page “has really grown to so much more than that, and I couldn’t be [more] proud and grateful,” Russo said. “We really have such a great, generous and caring community.”

For Hayley and the 34 other members of the Polar Bears and their families, it’s a wonderful reminder there are “still kind people in this world,” Figura-Ritter said.

“You’re trying to find other parents that are going through the same thing," she said. "So it’s just phenomenal and so touching. I was basically in tears reading the different comments. It was very touching to see that there is a community…out there and that nobody needs to feel alone.”

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