by Sue Ann Rybak
The smile on 15-year-old Madison Kelly’s face says it all. She loves being a Spartans’ Angel cheerleader.
Plymouth Meeting-based Spartans’ Angels gives special needs youths between the age of 5 and 15 the opportunity to be cheerleaders. The Spartans’ Angels cheer alongside the Spartans traditional cheerleading squad, who cheer for the Plymouth Whitemarsh Spartans youth football club. Madison’s mother Judy Kelly said her daughter, who has autism, loves cheering with other girls her age.
“It has been such a positive experience for everyone,” she said. “Madison loves it. We love it. It’s good exercise for her. This is her third year participating in the squad, and she looks forward to it every year.”
She said being part of the cheerleading squad has really helped her daughter to interact with kids her own age. She explained that children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty understanding “social cues” or “body language.”
“It has really helped her with her socialization skills,” Judy said. “When she sees you, she always wants to give you a high five. We are trying to teach her to say, ‘Hi! My name is Madison. I am on the Spartans Cheerleading Squad.’ She is not very verbal or spontaneous. However, Madison is very aware.”
Kelly added that being a cheerleader provides her daughter with additional opportunities to apply the social skills she learned at school and at home. “She loves being around girls her age,” Kelly said. “She is proud to be part of the team. You can see the smile on her face when she walks up to the typical squad. She loves when we get ready for the games. The Spartans’ Angels wear the same uniform and gigantic bow as the other cheerleaders. After she puts on her uniform, I put makeup on her, and she just thinks she’s a rock star out there.”
Kelly said she worried in the beginning that being a cheerleader would cause her daughter more anxiety. “It was a little tough in the beginning, just getting her to stay,” she said. “We started using social stories [a visual guide that describes a situation or skill in terms of relevant social cues, perspectives and common responses in a specifically defined style and format.] and a timer. She ended up loving it. I never would have thought in a million years she could do it. It’s the first thing she actually joined and loved. I cheered my whole life so being able to see her out there cheering and having fun means a lot.”
Kelly said Madison’s school even incorporated the cheers into her curriculum. Plymouth Meeting resident Laurie McCall, whose son has autism and plays baseball, spearheaded the organization “to give kids with special needs the same opportunity to be cheerleaders as their friends.” McCall, who coached the Whitemarsh Spartans Cheerleading Team at the time, asked the board is she could “start a special needs team because cheering is an adaptable activity.”
She said the Spartans Angels cheerleading squad is modeled after the Little League’s Challenger Division, a baseball league designed for youth with physical and mental challenges that her son participates in.
“It’s a great opportunity for kids to be part of a team,” she said. “Unfortunately, some of the challenges special needs children face make it difficult to play on a regular team. There is no big time commitment. Parents of special needs children often have to take their children to a variety of therapies and classes, which make it difficult to attend practices and games regularly. The team practices twice a week on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 6:45 p.m. at the East Plymouth Valley Park, 900 Germantown Pike in Plymouth Meeting Township.
“The Spartans’ Angels have their own half-time performance that they perform at every game they cheer for,” she said. “The squad cheers with the typical squad on the sidelines. They are all dressed in the same uniform and wear the same bows. And when they go out and do their performance, they get to be in the spotlight, and it’s fun. They are not in it to win competitions. While we are teaching them how to be cheerleaders, the goal is to have fun.”
McCall said while the squad is based in Plymouth Meeting, it welcomes prospective Angels “from anywhere … regardless of where they live. No one is excluded.” She added that all of the coaches have experience working with students with special needs.
Spartans’ Angel Coach Shelly D’Onofrio, a reading specialist and fifth grade teacher, grew up cheerleading. “I was a cheerleader from fifth grade all the way through college,” she said. “It has been a passion of mine since I was in elementary school. When I was approached about being a coach, I thought it would a great opportunity for me to give back to the community in a way would make a big difference.
“It has been a heartwarming experience. I am always blown away by how much the Angels remember from week to week. It’s a great learning and social experience for the kids. We try and accommodate all the Angels as much as we can. They all have a variety of needs, but they all have been successful in their own way. We are all about praise and compliments, and being able to see them respond to that is really great. For me, it is all about helping them to feel successful. I love seeing the big smiles on their faces after they learn a cheer or dance.”
She said the coaches are very accommodating regarding students’ individual needs and schedules. “We are very flexible about the kids coming to games and practices. We understand that sometimes coming to practice or a game may not be the best idea if they had a bad day. It takes the pressure off families, who often have very hectic schedules.”
Shelly said thanks to Laurie McCall, the team was able to secure a grant, so youths with special needs can participate in the program for free. She added that all coaches and parents are committed to making the program a success. Coach Bridget Craig, a special education teacher in the Colonial School District, said the key to the program’s success is making sure “everyone on the squad is genuinely having fun … The program can help [special needs] kids find their voice” because the coaches are constantly encouraging them to speak up. “We are making them partake in conversations that are just silly and fun.”
She said being a cheerleader helps them to feel part of a community. “I feel like everyone in America is talking about football, and while they may not know that much about football, they know they cheer for the football team, so they can have a conversation about that. When the other kids are talking about the game they have on Saturday, they can say they have a game, too. It usually initiates a conversation.
“I have noticed as a special education teacher that other kids will often say “Oh, you have a game, too? Tell us about your cheerleading squad,” so it really helps on both sides. It gives kids something to talk about. Besides that, being a cheerleader is cool! It’s fun!