Every Friday evening, people crowd into a hot, stuffy snack bar or sit on hard, metal bleachers that shake no matter what size person climbs them. People arrive after long, stressful weeks at work or minding children at home bearing coffee, knitting supplies, books, phones, laptops and even a majestic Black Lab Seeing Eye dog. The place packs in birthday parties and kids kicking and flipping.
In one part of the gym a mixed bag of children gather around stretching and preparing to practice their routine, dressed in comfortable sweats. A few sit in wheelchairs, awaiting their next move. Some suffer from neurological, mental, and physical impairments not necessarily visible to the naked eye. They work hard practicing these movements for a routine which will undoubtedly earn them both cheers and tears. They are a special needs cheerleading squad, the South Jersey Storm Twisters.
Last summer, my daughter kept mentioning how she wished to dance like a ballerina. I searched for a special needs ballet class to find that many conflicted with her after school therapy schedule or weren’t available on the weekend due to lack of interest. Yet again, I grew depressed thinking that this little blonde girl would get cheated out of another “normal” activity I once took for granted.
E’s after school ABA therapist provided the solution. At the middle school where she worked, a Storm coach came to the school to introduce the special needs cheerleading team she started and recruit children for it. Although skeptical at first, I decided if E couldn’t dance, she would cheer. As a courtesy, the program was free for disabled children and run by the coach and cheerleaders who volunteered their expertise. They helped the kids stretch, practice and master cheerleading moves. All levels of disabled children participated, and you couldn’t help but be touched by their commitment and admire them for it. After the weekly practice, they danced to music, jumped on a trampoline or played “Duck, Duck, Goose” which erupted in laughter. E jumped up and down in excitement each Friday in anticipation of her new endeavor.
While the children practiced, the parents sat in clusters and friendships developed. Although I’ve met friends who have autistic kids through E’s school and a mothers’ club, the cheerleading parents offered a fresh, varied perspective on the special needs community. We shared information regarding services and schools, commiserated about issues with our children and discussed why we decided to join. A friend and I also bonded over Seinfeld reruns.
All the practices eventually led to reaching their goal of performing in competitions. When I heard about this possibility, I figured they would perform at small high school gyms. Sitting with more veteran parents corrected my assumption. We received confirmation that the first performance would occur at the Atlantic City Convention Center with every other squad.
For the competition, the cheerleaders, including a few boys, wore real uniforms of navy blue and white with the gold, red and blue Storm insignia. The volunteers scooped up the girls, applying sparkly eye shadow around their eyes if they wanted. Every girl attached a bright red bow to carefully sprayed ponytails. They performed in front of judges, other regional cheerleading teams and proud relatives and friends, a cast of thousands. The deafening roar from the crowd, along with the bopping, raucous music astounded me when they performed. Imagine my surprise when my daughter was lifted in the air! People applauded and screamed and parents cried in support of the disabled team. When the Twisters surpassed their expectations and won medals and jackets embroidered with the competition logo in a mobbed hall with barely room for one member’s wheelchair, the parents persisted in making room for her chair, ensuring every team member received their accolades. An amazing and overwhelming moment for all!
Another two competitions followed, one at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Currently, the team, through word of mouth, welcomed new members to the fold. For E and her teammates, it builds their confidence and self-esteem, introduces them to new friends and provides them a creative outlet. It personally enables them to see they’re capable of more than what others expect. They’re not just a bunch of disabled kids to be pitied but to be lauded. Also, it inspires parents to see how much their kids can accomplish and opens up new possibilities for their futures. Even the hot, stuffy snack bar and shaky metal bleachers cannot stop me from supporting my daughter and proudly catching the spirit of the storm.
This is an original post for Jersey Moms Blog. MB is a New Jersey mom.
Photo credits given to South Jersey Storm All Stars.
Check out the article NBC just did on the squad at http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local-beat/South-Jersey-Storm-Cheerleaders-112216054.html.