The First Special Needs Cheerleading Team Will Put a Smile on Your Face

Cristina Rood smiled as her two-year-old daughter, Charlotte, and her baby brother, Kayden, rocked and bounced to a TV commercial jingle. They love to move, Cristina thought with a smile. They get that from me. She’d been a high school and college cheerleader and had even cheered for a semipro football team. But as happy memories resurfaced, suddenly, the Nampa, Idaho, mom’s heart twinged.

Charlotte had developmental delays and one-year-old Kayden was born with mild cerebral palsy (CP) and wore leg braces. From experience, Cristina knew that many organized activities were happy to include kids with special needs, but they were usually put in the back row and rarely got the extra attention they needed to succeed.

They deserve better, she thought, and shared her feelings on Facebook. Special Olympics is great, but wondering if there are any local special needs teams for things like cheerleading.

Almost immediately, a message from a man named Alex Fox, a Special Olympics coach, popped up. No, there aren’t. But I would love to help somebody start one!

I’m your girl! Cristina replied enthusiastically, her heart leaping at the opportunity.

Building Team Spirit

Soon after their conversation, Cristina met with Alex. “Instead of helping kids with special needs adapt for cheerleading, I want to adapt cheerleading for the kids”, she said.

“I know you’ll have at least one student — my son. Karston has a neurological disease and is in a wheelchair,” Alex explained. When Cristina learned that Alex also had a medically fragile nephew, Mitch, who had died at age 15, she decided to honor him and call her team “Mitchie’s Mustangs.”

Alex immediately put out the word on Facebook and offered his office lobby for practice. Five kids showed up for the first class, including 19-year-old Andrea Vazquez, who was born with a gene defect that left her with kidney problems and learning disabilities. “She used to do gymnastics, and she loves to dance”, her mom, Virginia, told Cristina. “Unfortunately, she just aged out of the high school programs. Without any activity to enjoy, she just mopes around the house.” That was exactly why Cristina had opened her team to girls and boys of any age or ability.

After a round of introductions, Cristina lined up the kids and began teaching a simple two-step cheer.

“Mit-chie’s…Mus-tangs!” she slowly but excitedly pronounced, slapping her thighs, then clapping her hands. “Come on, you guys do it”, she encouraged and soon the kids were following along, faces beaming.

Seeing their children having fun just like other kids put smiles on the parents’ faces too. Grateful families spread the word, and at the next class, more students showed up.

Kendra Ferris brought her 13-year-old daughter, Katie, who has Down syndrome. Katie’s 16-year-old sister, Kalista, who doesn’t have special needs, tagged along. “How can I help?” she asked. Cristina happily appointed her as junior coach, and while Cristina led cheers up front, Kalista helped guide anyone struggling to keep up.

As weeks passed, Cristina added more cheers with more steps. And one afternoon, she asked the class, “So … do you think you’re all ready for a public performance?”

“Yes!” the kids cheered, happily.

Wanting to make the occasion extra special, Alex arranged for a pink limo to drive the team to a local kidney disease run, where they would cheer on the runners.

By the time they arrived at the park, the kids were really revved up. Assembling at the finish line, they chanted, cheered and did a pom-pom dance routine. The spectators went wild — Mitchie’s Mustangs received as much applause as the runners.

Seeing their faces light up, Cristina felt a lump form in her throat as she realized that cheerleading wasn’t just something fun for them to do. We’re building their confidence and self-esteem, she thought, smiling.

Something to Cheer About

Today, a year later, Mitchie’s Mustangs boasts 11 members, and they’re about to get two new cheerleaders — Charlotte and Kayden, who Cristina initially thought were too young to participate. After watching them dance along from the sidelines, she changed her mind.

The team performs at rec center competitions and other local events. Friendships have blossomed, both among the families and the team members. “Thanks to Cristina, Andrea feels less isolated, more a part of a community”, says Virginia. “Her self-confidence has received such a boost that she now volunteers at her old school’s special ed class and at church.”

“You can practically see the kids emerging from their shells”, says Cristina, beaming. “These young people are coming to realize — and showing the community— just how able they are. And that’s truly something to cheer about.”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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