By Maggie Pruitt
Bows are straightened, skirts are adjusted, and pompoms are shaken out as the cheerleaders assume their places for the routine. As the music blares, Kristen Marez’s mother pushes her across the blue mat with a poster board attached to her wheelchair that reads “Round Off Back Handspring Double Full.”
“That was only our third time with the music!” says longtime gymnastics coach Julie Dujka of their practice.
Two years ago, Dujka started a cheerleading program for people with special needs at Powersports gym, a program that accepts people across the spectrum of special needs for a registration fee of $30.
Initially, Dujka says she threw out the idea to coach both private gymnastics and cheerleading classes and would direct the kids to whichever program they wanted to join.
The class has grown from eight people to 11 over the last two years with girls ranging from ages 6 to 21 with all different kinds of personalities and needs.
“I see confidence and joy in them [as they cheer],” says Dujka. “It’s seeing them beam whenever they come into the gym and knowing they have a family here. I don’t call it [physical] therapy, it’s just an activity for these girls.”
The parents of the girls participating in the program bring them to practices every Friday and stay to watch.
Brandis Tomalá, mother of cheerleader Izzy Tomalá, gets emotional when she talks about what Powersports has done for her daughter.
“Three years ago she couldn’t even talk, and now she’s talking, laughing, and cheerleading.” says Tomalá,
Kristen Marez is non-verbal and non-mobile, but her face lights up whenever her mother, Jennifer, mentions cheerleading. “[She] has gained so much more physical strength,” says Jennifer.
“I am able to have helpers from other [Powersports cheer teams] come in and volunteer and it brings unity to [Powersports] gym,” Dujka says.
Helpers must be 9 years old or older; each girl has her own helper.
“My [daughters] have a heart and compassion for kids with special needs,” says Monica Sigler, mother of three helpers. “They are just drawn to them and want to help and cheer with them; it’s amazing. My daughter Reese even did a talent show with an autistic girl. She came up with routines and everything. That takes a lot of patience and maturity for a 10-year-old.”
“It’s been really rewarding to go home with my girls and know we did this together,” says Dujka.
Both Nadia and Kalyn help every Friday practice with their mother and know the cheerleaders’ little quirks and have watched them grow.
“Abby loves aliens and she gives us all alien names like Blimpsy and Pimpsy,” says Nadia. “Whenever the lights are too bright or the music is too loud, we get her to use her ‘alien powers’ to overcome it.”
When asked about an upcoming competition, 18-year-old Allison Dohrman says, “We’re going to kick some butt!”