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Girls Bask in Their New Destiny: Cheerleaders

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007

Arriving at a gym in Gaithersburg, Clare Kearney bounds inside -- 13 years old, petite, with fine brown hair and delicate glasses. Excited. This is a place where competitive cheerleaders practice, girls who can pull off perfect roundoffs and handsprings and back tucks.

This is Clare's place.

It matters little that she does not do those sophisticated moves, or that she has Down syndrome and autism, or that, in the beginning, she seemed to barely look at her teammates. Now she stands beside them at practice. She claps. She brings both arms above her head in a V.

When her workout is over, she wraps her arms around one girl, then another, hugging them.

On Clare's team, all the girls have disabilities: autism, Down syndrome, other conditions that delay development. Some have more physical skill. Some are more communicative. But together they are Destiny, cheerleaders all, a troupe of 12 that has produced what was missing in many of their lives: Belonging. Acceptance. Friendship.

"It's like they have found themselves in one another," said Laura Thomas, who has watched her 14-year-old daughter, Chloe, grow more self-confident and compassionate as her connection with the other girls has deepened.

The team that has worked so well for Clare and Chloe is part of a quiet but growing grass-roots effort to create more activities outside of school for children with disabilities. Its successes have come one at a time, often driven by parents, nearly 40 years after Special Olympics introduced athletic competition into the world of the intellectually disabled.

"It's sort of a viral effect -- as more are created, more follow," said Marguerite Kirst Colston of the Autism Society of America, who cited examples across the country, including movie nights, gymnastics classes, day camps. "There are definitely more parents involved. They get together and come up with an idea, and that program gets replicated."

This is particularly visible in cheerleading. In the past year, special-needs teams have more than doubled at private cheerleading gyms to nearly 160 squads in 34 states. As recently as seven years ago, there were none. Separately, in Special Olympics, at least eight states now offer a local cheerleading program.

"It's huge," said Mary Fehrenbach, a Kentucky coach who in 2001 started the first special-needs all-star team, the Kentucky Elite Showcats. "I knew this would happen if we could just get people out there to see it. . . . They can do things. They just need the chance."

At a time when 5.5 million schoolchildren have physical or intellectual disabilities and relatively few options for before- or after-school sports and recreation, the need is great, said James H. Rimmer, director of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For the Destiny team, the experience has been transformative. The girls, age 7 to 15, have become more talkative, more socially comfortable, more engaged, their parents say. They have made physical strides.

Chloe, once mostly sedentary at home, now strives to do splits, getting closer all the time. Cheerleading has captured her imagination and her love of song and dance, which Brownies and basketball never did.

On the day of Destiny's first public appearance, Chloe emerged as a voice of assurance. "You just get out there and you have a great time!" the teenager told her teammates.

Three times last spring, the girls took the stage at competitions in Washington, in Baltimore and at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. To some families' surprise, they performed their routine under bright lights, before audiences of thousands, beside cheerleaders with glittery makeup, hair-sprayed curls, years of experience.

Khadra Ayorinde recalls sitting on the edge of her seat in March on the day of Destiny's debut.

Her daughter, Ayaan, a 13-year-old with Down syndrome, would be performing at the Washington Convention Center. Anyone would be overwhelmed, she thought.

Yet, as she watched in awe, Ayaan jumped and tumbled, in her pleated blue skirt, her sleeveless shell, her matching hair bow and new white sneakers.

When the routine ended, Ayaan waved at the crowd.

Then she blew kisses.

"It was like she had been performing all her life," her mother recalled. "We were sitting right in front, and we were laughing and crying at the same time."

Other Destiny parents cried, too.

The audience rose to its feet in applause.

Said Nancy Weintraub, whose daughter cheers on other teams at the same Gaithersburg gym: "They are just totally inspiring."

A Good-Will Enterprise

What is striking to some parents is how well special-needs activities have taken hold. Five years ago, Sharon Myrick saw a special-needs cheerleading team perform and vowed, "We can do this." That was the beginning of "Eye of the Storm" at the Maryland Twisters gym in Glen Burnie.

Its 21 members, including Myrick's son, another boy and 19 girls, have made great strides in balance, coordination, timing and memorization, she said. With five hours of practice a week and 11 competitions a year, they are a tight group in spite of sometimes large differences in their abilities, she said. "It's really grown them socially."

Since the team was formed, at least eight others have cropped up in Maryland and Virginia, national cheerleading officials said.

Destiny started after Kristi Messer approached officials at Dream Allstars gym in Gaithersburg in June 2006. Messer's daughter, Hannah, 10, had tried special-needs cheerleading elsewhere, and Messer thought the idea was too good to let go.

Destiny took shape by last fall.

Since then, it has been a good-will enterprise. Gym owner Andrea Needle is covering the cost of gym time and uniforms, and Karen Mason is donating her Saturday mornings to coach. Typically, all-star cheerleading costs more than $3,000 a year, which not everyone on Destiny could have afforded, parents say.

"We knew all the families have a lot of financial burdens for the care of their children, and so we decided to support this," Needle said.

Five cheerleaders from other teams have stepped up as regular volunteers, on hand for every practice, every competition.

Relationships have been forged.

Fourteen-year-old Marlo Bloom, one of the most skilled cheerleaders, has become especially close to Clare Kearney, who needed the most help. In the beginning, Marlo literally helped Clare move her arms. Clare still relies on Marlo but now moves with more independence.

Said Clare's mother, Paula Kearney: "It's like she's a whole different child" at the cheerleading gym.

The team practices every week for 90 minutes, working on jumps, dance moves, tumbling. At break time, they play duck, duck, goose, chasing each other, laughing, then practicing again. Their routine, set to music, is a little under 2 1/2 minutes.

Along the way, the group has discovered a certain spirit, which was what Tiffany Roberts felt when she showed up for the first time last January.

Tiffany, then 11, wanted to be part of extracurricular activities and sports but was shaken by her experience with a fourth-grade soccer team, where her differences seemed to frustrate others, her mother said. Tiffany has a developmental disability and epilepsy, conditions her mother, Jennifer Zaranis, said affect her memory and hand-eye coordination.

The big surprise for Tiffany was "the accepting quality of it," her mother said. "The girls hugged her and said, 'Come on.' It was like they already knew her before she even joined."

Tiffany, she recalled, "was in shock."

Now, she said, Tiffany shouts the team cheer so often that every member of the family knows the words:

Dream Allstars! We're the No. 1 team!

Beating us this year, Only in your . . . dreams!

"It has definitely made a profound difference in her life," Zaranis said. "If you met us back in January, you would probably be saying, 'Poor child.' . . . Something has happened, and we really believe it's the cheerleading."

Breakthrough in Socialization

That cheerleading in particular would become a niche for their daughters with disabilities has surprised parents like Mike Melletz, who once thought of the culture as competitive and snooty.

"It took me for a complete loop," he said. "These cheerleading people have been some of the nicest people I've ever encountered."

The phenomenon has a social significance far beyond the girls of Destiny, said Allen Crocker, a Harvard University professor who has specialized in developmental disabilities for more than 50 years at Children's Hospital Boston.

"This is a breakthrough," Crocker said. "It is the antithesis of isolation. We all hope that our youngsters with special needs will be welcomed in activities that are part of our culture."

Cheerleading, he noted, "is a particularly lively, joyful one" -- and so at odds with the exclusion of the past, when many children with special needs spent idle hours at home.

Destiny continues to welcome new members amid many signs that the girls have discovered something distinct.

The night members of Destiny received their uniforms, Marissa Melletz, 11, was so happy she slept in hers, her father said.

Even now, Ayaan Ayorinde will sometimes dress in her uniform at home just to look in the mirror or create routines for her family to watch. At school, the other kids in her special-ed classes know she is a cheerleader.

"She knows this is a place where she is loved and where she loves performing," said Ayaan's mother. She added: "This was the first thing she belonged to."

Kristi Messer, mother of Hannah, said she sees what she has wanted for her daughter for years: friendships formed with other girls. "It gave her a social network of kids who are very much like herself," said Messer, a teacher, who noted that Hannah's special-ed classes are dominated by boys. Before, she said, "no one ever called for a sleepover or a play date."

The connection between the girls was clear at the Dream gym's annual picnic. Girls from eight cheer and dance teams were there, and coaches gave out individual awards.

For Marissa, on the Destiny team, waiting was hard.

All at once, she burst into tears.

Quietly, her teammates nudged up close to her side.

Chloe gathered the smaller girl on her lap and rocked her. Hannah, Victoria and Tiffany patted Marissa's shoulder, whispered, let her know it would be okay.

When the Destiny awards were finally called, Marissa was named the team's dance diva.

Victoria was the best tumbler.

Hannah showed the best facial expression.

Tiffany was most-spirited.

For working hard, and encouraging others, Chloe got the "Dream award."

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