Special-needs squad builds skills, confidence

Grace Uhwat (left), 6, hugs teammate Mallory Taylor, 9, before they compete at a tournament in Mundelien. The pair are both on LXC Gigi's Cheer Team, a squad for children with special needs out of Layton Athletics in Ringwood.
Grace Uhwat (left), 6, hugs teammate Mallory Taylor, 9, before they compete at a tournament in Mundelien. The pair are both on LXC Gigi's Cheer Team, a squad for children with special needs out of Layton Athletics in Ringwood.
Click to watch a video on the cheer squad

RINGWOOD -  The old Lydia went to the doctor a lot.

She was born with Down syndrome and a major heart defect.

At 6 months old, she had open-heart surgery.

At age 4, she got a pacemaker.

Outside of hospitals and doctors’ offices, she struggled to “find her voice,” said her mother, Laura Barten.

That is, until this year. Age 9 has been different.

“It’s like she came into her own – ‘I’m a real girl, and I do real things,’ ” Barten said.

And the most real and girly and fun of things little Lydia has done since summer is join a cheerleading squad.

Almost every Sunday, Barten attends cheerleading practice with 18 other squad members at Layton Athletics in Ringwood.

They’re all part of LXC Gigi’s Cheer Team, a squad for children with special needs. The cheerleaders, who range in age from 6 to 13, have faced a variety of health challenges – Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, ADHD, leukemia.

When co-owner Kelley Layton opened the athletic center two years ago, she sought to create a place where children of all athletic levels would feel at home.

Layton attended a conference in the spring about starting special-needs squads.

Conference leaders warned her not to set her hopes too high, that the first squad probably would attract only four cheerleaders.

The LXC Gigi’s squad has 18 members.

“I was hoping for eight, ... so I was very, very thrilled,” Layton said.

Squad members travel from across McHenry County, Lake County and southern Wisconsin to cheer.

Barten is from Wauconda. Six-year-old Jenna Snyder is from Lake Zurich.

“Even though it’s a long drive, [we thought] this would be a good opportunity,” said Jenna’s mother, Julie Snyder. “She loves it. “

Layton said her goal for the squad was twofold: teach an enthusiastic group of children some cheerleading skills and foster an environment in which special-needs children could build friendships.

As far as the first part of her mission is concerned, the techniques Layton teaches this squad are the same as other squads she leads. Tumbling. Stunting. Jumps. Dance.

“All the aspects that other cheerleading teams have, they have in their routine,” Layton said.

For the most part, the squad performs without any coaxing. Layton and a handful of other coaches who assist the team stay off the floor until it’s time for stunting. Then they spot team members as a safeguard in case they were to fall, which is one of the only differences from nonspecial-needs teams.

“I really wanted it to be the kids out on the floor,” Layton said. “They learn the routine, and they do it themselves.”

The friendship element of the team is next, but that part seems to have come easily.

The cheerleaders gather in the lobby of the athletic center before practices. When one cheerleader in the lobby sees another approaching the glass doors outside, she runs to greet the teammate with a hug.

And they hug. They hug fellow cheerleaders and their moms. And their dads. And the coaches. And they jump up and down with excitement when Layton asks, “Do you guys want to play a little bit?”

Sometimes people with special needs, especially those with Down syndrome, struggle to adapt to new environments. Sound or crowds sometimes are bothersome.

But many times, the smiles that squad members wear when they greet their peers continue during practices, and then at competitions.

“[Jenna] totally loves the attention,” Snyder said. “Once they adjust, she can’t get enough of it.”

Parents of squad members have said the opportunity to be part of a team and compete has instilled confidence in their children.

Laura Barten said that has definitely been the case for Lydia.

“She sees her friends do all these things and now she can say, ‘I’m a cheerleader.’ “

The team will compete in a national competition Feb. 21 in Wisconsin Dells, Wis. The next weekend, they’ll compete in another national competition in Chicago.

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