Indiana cheer squad builds up children with special needs – Washington Times

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) – Cheerleader Lexie Miller and her friend Alli Shanks are full of energy, circling each other to pull on the handles of each other’s wheelchairs while they giggle before a Friday night performance. A volunteer adjusts their gold, sparkly bows for maximum height — the bow has already shed specks of glitter on Lexie’s face.

“Are you girls ready?” asks a coach. “Yeah!” they yell back.

“I am super super super super read-ee,” Lexie sings. In a few minutes, she and the other members of Spirit of Southern Indiana: Spirit Cheer will file onto the ice at the Ford Center to perform between periods of an Evansville Thunderbolts game.

Spirit Cheer is a squad of children ages 7 to 18 with physical or cognitive disabilities, founded by volunteers who work with children with special needs in their careers. The group started in 2009 with eight students and grew to 32 this season, with 29 girls and 3 boys.

The cheerleaders do all their own stunts while coaches spot them. Head coach and co-founder Kendra Hatfield said she’s proud the cheerleaders are learning to lift and fly and show off their abilities while they perform.

“Our goal is not only to allow them to be a part of an activity that’s fun for them, but that they benefit from,” said Karen Shields, Hatfield’s fellow head coach and co-founder as well as her sister. “Something that’s going to make them stronger, going to make them more coordinated, that’s going to help their balance . We really push them to be independent in doing the skill correctly as much as possible.”

The squad has cheered at University of Southern Indiana, University of Evansville, Thunderbolts games and more. At the end of January, they performed in the annual Cheer Exhibition hosted by Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp.

The Cheer Exhibition is Shields’ favorite performance every year, because Spirit Cheer cheerleaders get to perform alongside their peers.

“I love seeing the kids feel like they’re a part of something. Seeing them get excited before we go out to perform, and seeing the joy on their faces,” she said. “I think it’s worth every minute that we spend with them.”

As the squad disperses after their show, Lexie and her mom, April Johnson, get ready to pick up dinner.

“My throat hurts,” Lexie says, hugging Johnson’s leg.

“Were you cheering too loud?” her mom asks.

“And I was laughing too much with Alli,” Lexie explains.

Alli and her mother introduced Lexie and Johnson to Spirit Cheer. According to the head coaches, parent volunteers have been key for expanding the group and coming up with new ideas.

For Johnson, the close relationships among Spirit Cheer parents have been a support system, too.

“I just appreciate the friendships that the moms and the girls have,” Johnson said. “No one understands what it’s like to be a special needs mom but a special needs mom.”

Nina Fuller, whose daughters Hope and Tess have been part of Spirit Cheer for almost eight years now, agreed. Fuller is the founder of S.M.I.L.E. On Down Syndrome, an Evansville-based nonprofit that provides resources for people with Down syndrome and their families. She’s been able to connect with other Spirit Cheer parents on a professional level — answering questions about local resources — as well as a parent-to-parent level.

“We can kind of share in the triumphs of the parenting challenges that we have,” Fuller said. “We help one another. We see someone else’s child having a tough time. then we can encourage the child and reinforce what we’ve heard mom say to them.”

Fuller said she was moved to tears at the first performance she watched when the audience stood and applauded.

“Those girls performed and gave it their all,” she said. “When parents are watching their child out there, we’re so proud of how far they’ve come.”

Hatfield’s most powerful experience with the cheer squad happened at a high school gymnasium, she said.

“As we started walking out to the floor, the entire stadium stood up and started cheering. Our girls just froze,” she said. “They started jumping up and down, smiling and waving – in that moment, they were stars.”

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Source: Evansville Courier and Press, http://bit.ly/2jV29eu

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, http://www.courierpress.com

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

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