By Gina Capellazzi
Photo by Leah Adams
Since 2004, Skate for Hope has been one of the premier figure skating events in the United States. The event has engaged and educated more than 1,000 participants; 20,000 audience members and raised more than $575,000 for cancer research. Dozens of national, world and Olympic figure skaters have taken part in the cause.
However, this year, Skate for Hope organizers decided to take a year off. On June 17, they announced that the show will resume in 2017 at a newly constructed Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, Florida.
Here’s our latest interview with show organizer, Carolyn Bongirno.
Figure Skaters Online: For those not familiar with Skate for Hope, how did it start and where did the idea for the show come from?
Carolyn Bongirno: Skate for Hope began as a dream in my heart to help me overcome and heal my soul from my own experience with cancer. It truly has been the best medicine of my life. In July 2005, I sat late one night talking with my dear friend, Jenny Needham-Semaca and she asked me what continued to drive me to work so passionately on this charitable organization. As I paused and reflected, I realized just how much Skate for Hope had healed me. I knew then, that what continued to inspire me to run Skate for Hope is the lesson it has taught me. No matter what hardship we face in our lives, good can grow from it. This is a life lesson I want to teach my daughter Natalie. So my answer to Jenny then is the same today. I continue and love my work with Skate for Hope because it is my living example to my daughter that good can grow from any crisis or challenge. Always let life, even the difficult times, inspire you and shape your character. Never cower from adversity. Rise up in every way and walk through it.
FSO: What is your personal connection with breast cancer?
CB: I battled stage three breast cancer 17 years ago when I was 33-years-old.
FSO: How much time and commitment do you put into Skate for Hope?
CB: I work on Skate for Hope year round. I am responsible for the fundraising, the operation and all logistics.
FSO: The show was held in Columbus, Ohio, but moved to Bowling Green in 2014 and 2015. Why did you move from Columbus to Bowling Green?
CB: For our first 10 years, we were in Columbus, Ohio at the Nationwide Arena. In 2014, we moved to the Bowling Green State University Ice Arena because management and ownership changes with Nationwide increased our facility rental fee there to a level we could not accommodate. I called 10-plus venues in Ohio and none worked with timing or budget needs. My last email was to Bowling Green State University. A cold call. I found the general manager, Jamie Baringer’s email on their website. I emailed and asked her if she would have a conference call with me. She emailed back immediately and said yes. We spoke the next day and came to a contract that would work for Skate for Hope and her building. Jamie welcomed Skate for Hope with open arms when we were homeless and were facing having to end our operation. Jamie and her team at Bowling Green State University Ice Arena were phenomenal, kind, professional and absolutely wonderful to work with. We held our annual Ohio event there in 2014 & 2015.
FSO: Last season, you did two shows, one in Bowling Green and one in Florida. Why did you decide to do two shows?
CB: We added a Florida show because I moved to Naples, Florida in 2013. In 2014, I developed a network of support and resources here to conduct a 2015 Florida event.
FSO: How was the response to the second show?
CB: Fabulous! We had 125 local participants, 12 elite athletes and an audience of 2,000.
FSO: How much work went into putting together two shows in two different cities?
CB: It was a labor of love by many. The team in Ohio was well-established and ran very smoothly and the team in Florida was excited to be a part of something new and unique. I worked more than I ever had but it was wonderful and so worth it.
FSO: This season, you did not have any shows. Why was that?
CB: It has become increasingly difficult to find sponsors to underwrite production costs. It has been a real challenge to find local companies that want to donate their marketing dollars to gain exposure through an ice show. As Skate for Hope is not a tour with a national presence, it is unable to draw national marketing dollars from corporations as we do not reach their customers on a national level. So we took 2016 off to re-invent ourselves and identify ways we can reduce production expenses and add value to local companies that choose to support us.
FSO: Did any of the skaters or fans reach out to you asking what happened?
CB: Many, many skaters, parents and audience embers have reached out and said how sad they are that we are not having an event this year. While it chokes me up to read them, it assures me that Skate for Hope is admired and makes an impact on the people that experience it. All of the letters and emails inspire me to keep moving forward to bring Skate for Hope back.
FSO: Did you have some concerns about not having a show this season?
CB: I had more sadness than concern. Skate for Hope has a passionate following and I believe it will be enthusiastically embraced again in the future.
FSO: Did you think people would think that this was the end of Skate for Hope?
CB: Perhaps, but everything in the world changes so fast these days. I knew people would be sad, but understand that Skate for Hope needs to take a pause to secure sponsors and venues where we can flourish. I think it is quite standard now that an organization can change and re-invent themselves rapidly so major changes are not very surprising.
FSO: Skate for Hope will be returning in 2017, right?
CB: Yes, Skate for Hope is thrilled to announce that we will return on June 17, 2017 at the newly constructed Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, Florida. Skate for Hope is honored and privileged to be welcomed by this incredible new training facility. The team at FHCI could not be more supportive and SFH is most grateful to have a new home that understands and admires the mission and work of SFH. (See attachments.) Skaters from all over FL are invited to join the cast and rehearsals with complimentary ice time and choreography instruction will be held at FHCI and at the Germain Arena in Estero, FL. We are also hopeful that our Orlando cast members will also return. Registration for Wesley Chapel, FL 2017 event will open January 1, 2017. At this time, we are still working to secure sponsors for an Ohio 2017 event.
FSO: What are your thoughts about this announcement and how do you think the skating community will response to this news?
CB: I am hopeful that skaters and audience members will be ecstatic. The next Skate for Hope event will be exceptional and unique because of our new incredible venue. Florida Hospital Center Ice will have the lighting and sound technology of a huge modern arena with seating for 850 people. This will be a small audience for Skate for Hope, but it will be a joyful, inspiring and sold out experience for the cast and audience. Having every seat filled (and adding seats on the ice) creates an energy like no other that unites everyone in the venue to celebrate the artistry on the ice and the cancer survivors that are present and honored at the show.
FSO: What are your hopes and dreams for Skate for Hope in the future?
CB: To expand our website to be a national resource for all children and teens for health education information and emotional support when they have a loved one battling cancer. To grow to conduct three Skate for Hope events a year in three different cities.
FSO: Lastly, what has been your favorite part of Skate for Hope?
CB: The letters I receive from parents and skaters that have participated and share that Skate for Hope has made it easier for their family to cope with a loved one’s battle with cancer.
To learn more about Skate for Hope, visit www.skateforhope.org