Together they soar
● By Steven Hoffman
Each Sunday night, the 15 members of the KX Athletics Headliners team gather at the gym in West Grove and practice their lifts and jumps and dance routines. The work is hard. The atmosphere is electric as 15 young cheerleaders bubble with enthusiasm and energy.
There's nothing unusual about cheerleaders working hard or being enthusiastic. What is different about this team of competitive cheerleaders is that each member of the squad faces a unique physical or cognitive challenge.
The team trains under the watchful eyes of Elizabeth Reber, who led the effort last year to form a cheerleading squad for youngsters with special needs.
Reber recalled traveling with the KX Athletics cheerleading squads to various competitions around the country and seeing other programs that had teams comprised of individuals with special needs.
“I'd see other teams and I'd think, 'why aren't we doing this?'” Reber explained. “It became a dream of mine to start this team.”
Reber approached Karla Andrews, the owner of KX Athletics, about the possibility of starting a new team and she was very supportive. They utilized social media and online message boards to promote the fact that a team was forming, and when word began to spread they were soon being contacted by interested families throughout southern Chester County. The team quickly reached 15 participants, a good number to start the team.
The inaugural team includes Carter Skiles, Mikaylah Reed, Khloe Reed, Addison Brunnquell, Madison Hostetter, Chloe Mudgett, Megan Wood, Sierra Wilson, Dylan Jesse, Charlie Rappa, Luke Waggonner, Eva Nelson, Caitlyn Reed, Chesapeake Wood, and Laura Connell. They range in age from 3 to 22, and each one is facing their own physical, emotional, or cognitive challenges. They started practicing as a team last July.
“We're a part of the KX Athletics family,” Reber said. “This has been an accepted endeavor from the start.”
She said that the benefits of participating on the team are ample: the youngsters get to enjoy the sport, and they build positive relationships—with the coaches, the cheerleaders who help the coaches, and with each other. There are physical benefits to the training for a sport, but the emotional and social benefits are just as important.
Day Iseminger's daughter, Chesapeake Wood, is one of the Headliners. Chesapeake was diagnosed with cerebral palsy before she was three years old and suffered from numerous complications as a result of being born prematurely, including problems with her heart and lungs. As Chesapeake grew up, she had a very difficult time with her mobility, even with the help of intensive physical therapy and a walker. That changed somewhat when she underwent a series of operations, including major surgery when she was in the third grade. Her condition improved and through even more intensive physical therapy, Chesapeake reached the point where she could get around with just the aid of crutches. Chesapeake impresses everyone with the courage, determination, and upbeat attitude that she faces her physical challenges with.
Chesapeake has always admired cheerleaders. When Day would take her to youth football games to watch her brother, Tommy, play, Chesapeake would be positioned so that she could watch the cheerleaders perform their routines. By the time Chesapeake was in seventh grade, she was able to cheer alongside the Oxford Golden Bears cheerleading squads, and her participation in that led her to love cheerleading that much more.
Being able to be a member of a team like the Headliners has been very beneficial for Chesapeake.
“She loves it,” Iseminger said. “She's always asking if it's time to go to practice. She has really branched out more. They have her rolling on the mats. She helps with the stunts. It's really different from the cheering that she did with the Golden Bears.”
Chesapeake just turned 18, and will have the opportunity to keep performing with the team for years to come. Iseminger said that she thinks being a part of the Headliners will have a lasting impact for her daughter.
“It has made her want to be more independent,” Iseminger said. “It has given her more self-confidence. This was really perfect for her.”
Reber, who is trained as a special education teacher, is one of three volunteer coaches who help lead the squad through their practices and competitions. Lauren Fitzpatrick and Amy Brunnquell take the lead when it comes to supervising the Headliners' choreography and training as a cheerleading unit. And this team always functions as one unit—no one is ever left standing on the sidelines.
“No one is ever standing around,” Reber said. “Our team is inclusive of everybody.”
Reber said that it's inspiring to watch the young athletes work so hard on improving their skills. Even though each person on the squad is facing a unique challenge, they show up for practice and want to work on their routines. They have an opener, stunts, a dance part, and a pyramid for the routine that they perform during competitions.
“These kids are expected to do a two-minute routine,” Reber said. “This is no joke. We have a really great routine that they do. It takes a lot of hard work.”
According to Reber, the key to working with these young athletes is providing individualized instruction to each person.
She explained, “You can't just go out and say, 'we're going to do this.' You have to work with each person on each skill.”
That's where the buddies come in. The buddies are competitive cheerleaders on other KX Athletics teams who work with the Headliners on the basic skills of cheerleading. If the coaches provide the big picture vision for the program, it's the buddies who are working to implement that vision.
“We have teenagers, ranging in age from 15 to 17 that act as buddies to these athletes,” Reber explained. “These buddies volunteer their time and share their love of the sport. It's all volunteer. They are doing it because they want to.”
The buddies are Allie Sullivan, Anya Pavlosky, Cassie Oranzi, Courtney Schneider, Haley Allen, Kendall Bosio, Lexi Clevenstine, Jordan Waggonner, Shannon Ward, Stijn Koudstaal, and Maura Goodwin. Sometimes, they will spend most of the day practicing themselves before working with the Headliners members.
Reber said that the Headliners team wouldn't be possible without the buddies because it would be impossible to provide the close attention that the young athletes need—and deserve.
According to Reber, the impact of the buddies is seen in the Headliners' personal growth and in their performances.
“For my athletes to come in and have the kind of enthusiasm that they have, the buddies really make that happen,” Reber said. “They are sharing their love of the sport.”
Reber said that it's also inspiring to see the changes that occur in the buddies as they form bonds with the young athletes and help support them throughout the season.
“The interactions with the kids is what builds these relationships,” Reber said.
Kendall Bosio is one of the buddies. She works closely with Headliner Laura Connell. While each buddy will help out each young athlete at various points during a season, an effort is made to pair a buddy with a Headliner regularly so that they form a real bond.
“At first, they had to warm up to us,” Bosio explained, “but now they started to take the directions and really start to love the cheerleading.”
Bosio said that she wanted to work with the youngsters on the Headliners because she thought it would be a good experience. However, the rewards have been even greater than she expected. She proudly recalls seeing the Headliners take the stage for the first time in front of thousands of people at a competition.
“They were awesome,” Bosio said. “You could see their faces just light up.”
The Headliners just so happened to take first place in the first competition that they ever took part in. Of course, it's not just about finishing in first place for this team. It's about the personal growth and development of each member.
The Headliners will be back in action during a competition in Philadelphia on April 22. That will be the last one for this season. Reber said that next year they could be looking to increase the number of competitions that the Headliners compete in from four to six. They are also looking for more young athletes with special needs to join the team. An informational meeting for interested families will take place on Sunday, May 7 at 6 p.m.
Iseminger said that any parent with a child with special needs should consider if participating with the Headliners might be beneficial—whether cheerleading seems like an obvious fit or not.
“The athletes are all different, and they all get something different out of it,” Iseminger said.
Reber said that she is proud that KX Athletics has this team and can offer this opportunity to youngsters in the area.
“I go to bed at night knowing that everyone is having fun,” said Reber. “Special needs students don't always get to participate in sports, and here they are getting to participate.”
Funding the dream
By Steven Hoffman
KX Athletics in West Grove is offering young people with special needs the opportunity to participate in a sport and be a valued part of a team—with all the physical, social, and emotional benefits that come along with it.
For some of the young athletes and their parents, it's a dream come true.
The goal for KX Athletics is to have the costs of operating the Headliners program absorbed through a variety of fundraisers and sponsorships so that participation in the Headliners is not a financial burden to the participants' families. Uniforms, shoes, performance make-up, bows, practice wear, and other expenses can be costly. It's estimated that it costs about $695 per athlete for a competition season, but there is no charge to the Headliners participants.
Elizabeth Reber, the team's coach, said that they rely heavily on donations and sponsorships to fund the Headliners program.
Last fall, Buzz Dorety, an Oxford Borough resident, donated about $700 in pennies that he had saved up over the years because he was so inspired by the Headliners program. He later made an even larger donation to the team.
Reber said that they are hoping to continue to grow the Headliners program, so more donations and sponsorships are needed to make that a reality. KX Athletics has a 501(c)(3) status so all contributions are tax deductible. For more information about sponsorship opportunities or how to make a donation, contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org.