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Cheer squad captures unique energy

McNary’s special needs cheerleaders are one of two such squads in the area

Of the Keizertimes

Diversify. Diversify. Diversify.

That’s the mantra coming from the McNary Youth Cheer (MYC), and that mantra is a big reason why the program has grown from 12 to 45 members in just two years.

This figure doesn’t count those who cheer for McNary High School. But it does count those enrolled in five other programs: The coed tiny (ages 5 and under), mini (8 and under), youth (11 and under) and junior (14 and under) teams.

The fifth squad consists entirely of children and adults with special needs. Seeds for its formation were planted when MYC attended a competition in Eugene earlier this year and watched a performance by the Emerald All-Stars special needs squad. Today, Keizer-based MYC is one of two special needs cheer squads in the Salem area.

“They’re learning cheers, jumps, stunts and tumbling. Every aspect of cheer they learn,” said Deirdre Veenker, the program’s director. “We have kids that are autistic, deaf, visually impaired. So we have to attend to a variety of different needs. We practice the spectrum of visual learning, of auditory learning, of kinesthetic learning. We have to adapt to each of their needs.”

Practices are Saturday mornings in the McNary gym. The girls and young ladies – the oldest member is 22 – will join the program’s other squads when they perform at selected high school games throughout the year. The first joint performance is at a McNary football game.

“The first thing that captured my eye is that the program did come recommended from Developmental Disabilities Services,” said parent Jen Sutton. “The second thing is the approachability of the staff. They understand that special needs children have different needs and so they’re better able to meet the (members’) social and physical limitations. They see the strengths and weaknesses in our children. Staff knows they have different energies, different enthusiasms, different possibilities and imaginations. They know special needs kids are like everyone else. When you encourage them they blossom.”

And they love an audience.

“I can tell you honestly that my daughter is so excited for the chance. She’s a total ham. So the chance to have fun and be special without being ‘special ed’ is something she is looking forward to,” said Sutton.

Angela Oelhafen is Sutton’s daughter. She sports red hair, an infectious smile and a strong affinity for cartwheels.

“We practice to learn and do the cheers and stuff,” said Oelhafen.

Tumbling is also practiced each week.

“I am actually super excited to work with this group,” said tumbling coach Chris Pereyra of Eugene. “It’s like working with the younger group because we work on the basics the same. We just make it more exciting for them.”

Pereya coached cheerleading and tumbling since high school. He sees something in the McNary quintet that he doesn’t see in some of his other squads.

“They just seem more appreciative and they seem to work harder. It’s easier to work with a group like that because they want to work hard,” said Pereya. “So the more willing they are to work hard, the better they’re going to get. Rather than me trying to push them to get better, they’re pushing themselves.”

Raven Gesch, 22, is one of Pereya’s hardest workers, and one of his most excited. She calls to her brother every time she is about to tumble under Pereya’s physical guidance. Her enthusiasm is appreciated.

“You watch Raven and know that she’s trying hard, and that’s what’s most important,” said Pereya. “That’s what I want to see instead of somebody who doesn’t have a good attitude.”

There’s room for more budding cheerleaders with special needs.

“We think this is such a great opportunity for kids and young adults with a mental or physical challenge to be able to be involved in such a competitive and fun sport,” said Veenker. “There are a lot of sports and activities that don’t give these kids a chance to be involved, so we are really excited to see how this plays out. Even someone in a wheelchair may be able to do hand motions. We really want to see the numbers for this team grow. We have so many volunteers for this.

“It’s just a blessing to have them here because they have a great spirit for what they’re doing, and they enjoy what they’re doing. We love working with each one of them. They work real hard and I just enjoy doing this program because it’s where my heart’s at; I taught students with special needs for years.”

Initial registration for each member of the special needs squad is $250 along with monthly fees of $45. Sponsorships are being sought. Write [email protected] for additional information.