Special Needs Cheerleading
Differently abled kids find a team. Plus, area special needs cheerleading programs.
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Of all of the activities I thought we would try when my newborn son was placed in my arms, cheerleading was not one of them. But when PJ, now 5, was diagnosed with autism just after his 2nd birthday we realized that our original plans would be rewritten.
PJ has been a member of the South Jersey Storm Twisters cheerleading team for children with special needs since he was 3. His father and I signed him up on a whim — cheer seemed like a great fit on paper. It offered plenty of movement, the opportunity to socialize and provided discipline. It sounded amazing, but we really we had no idea how PJ would respond when we arrived for his first Friday night practice, at Rastelli’s Sports and More in Sewell, NJ.
Gimme a . . . chance!
The Storm Twisters was born seven years ago, expanding the South Jersey Storm All-Star Cheerleading Program to a wide array of kids with special needs, a group whose parents often have difficulty finding fun, challenging, appropriate activities. Members meet weekly to prepare for a number of competitions throughout the season — which they often win, earning first place banners in 2014 at the Battle on the Boards Championship in Atlantic City and the Encore Championships in Philadelphia.
Head coach Shannon Parry, 24, has been with the team for five years. Having started as a tumbling coach with the Storm organization, Parry expects a lot from her athletes and does not treat the Storm Twisters differently than she would her fully abled cheerleaders.
“Children and adults with special needs are used to being limited to what society believes they can do,” she says. “This program proves that limits are meant to be broken. Having a special need does not mean that talent doesn’t exist.”
Beth Fitzpatrick, of Glendora, NJ, agrees. Her daughter, Caroline, has spina bifida, leaving her unable to participate in most mainstream sports. “I put Caroline in cheer so she could get physical
activity and feel like she was a part of something,” Beth says. “After the first year, I realized how special the group was, this mix of kids with different abilties and personalities, along with the adults and kids who volunteer to make them feel special one day a week.”
For the Fitzpatricks, cheer is a family affair. Caroline’s older sister, Allison, is a team “buddy.” Buddies, explains Shannon, are volunteers aged 7 to 26 “who give up their Friday nights to assist
our team in succeeding. They offer the athletes everything from light guidance to full support in executing the routines.”
And execute they do. “These cheerleaders work extremely hard on their routine, building social interaction, physical activity and muscle memory,” attests Shannon. The team’s signature cheer exclaims that “No one can do it better!”
To Shannon, this could not be truer. “A million words could never express how I feel standing in front of these miracles every Friday,” she says. “It's bliss seeing them make a new friend, accomplish a tiny hurdle or break out a simple smile.”
The first time I saw my son perform allowed me to fully witness the “miracle” Shannon speaks about. The same child who sometimes struggled with eye contact was absorbing the applause from
the audience, smiling and playing for the crowd as he executed the routine with his teammates — kids with autism, Down syndrome, wheelchairs, leg braces and crutches, all putting on a show, displaying huge smiles and charisma.
PJ became a star and, more importantly, was having the time of his life.
NEXT PAGE: Info an area special needs cheerleading programs.