Let’s hear it for the girls!
A group of young women has seen its dreams come true: They're hearing applause; they're winning trophies; they're making friends. It's something to cheer about.
The Legacy Xtreme Panthers in Miamisburg, Ohio, run a unique program that pairs special-needs girls with other young women in a highly competitive cheerleading group.
Physical and developmental disabilities become an afterthought, thanks to the owners of Competitive Edge Athletics. “This is a place where everyone is treated the same way,” says partner Justin McKeever.
"It's our adaptive competitive cheer program," coach Kyle Manos says. "They are completely like all of our other squads -- they do the tumbling, they jump, stunt, dance... the only difference is the music is a little slower for a couple of the girls, but they are just like any of our other teams."
The program was created in May 2009 and has grown to nine members ranging from 11 years old to 25. There is no official age limit.
Donna Hayes, whose 17-year-old daughter, Brooke-Lynn, is confined to a wheelchair, says “it was always her dream to be a cheerleader, and she could not understand why she couldn’t be.”
So Hayes said, “You know, why can’t she be a cheerleader?”
Since Hayes had organized a special-needs baseball team in the community, McKeever approached her for advice when he wanted to start up the Panthers.
“A few of the partners in the company, including myself, had family members with special needs and so we wanted to organize a program that was inclusive” he said.
The Legacy Xtreme Panthers emphasize hard work and cooperation. Each special-needs child is paired with an all-star from one of the company's seven other teams. “The all-star helps her buddy to learn choreography, spots them, and stays with the same buddy all year, which helps with friendships,” Hayes said.
“What we really like about it is that unlike the baseball and bowling teams we had been a part of, this is a mixed group. The gym brings all the girls together. They are accepted as their own.”
The Panthers wear the same outfits as the other teams, they are expected to attend all practices, they travel to the same competitions and they are invited to the same events -- from the Christmas party to the end-of-season sleepover.
And when they perform, they get a standing ovation. They have more trophies than they can count, and they come away with a feeling that they belong.
"A lot of these girls have never been in front of anyone on stage or performing with others. A lot of people think they can't be like other kids. They get on stage and do exactly what other people are doing; it's a huge boost of confidence to them," Manos said.
“The reason for any child to do all-star cheerleading is that it helps them learn confidence through dedication, hard work, sportsmanship, and gives them the ability to make everlasting friendships,” McKeever says.
"This is my second year doing this," cheerleader Natalie Woodson said. She says it's her favorite thing to do "because I get to show how active I can be."
Hayes says that she and the other parents are in awe of how the girls treat each other. “It gives them access to a regular everyday life, where unlike school, there are no cliques.”
"It's awesome being here," said cheerleader Courtney King. "I love seeing everyone's smiling faces....
"I do know whenever I come to this place, I feel at home. They never tell me I have a disability."