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Norwin PAL's adaptive cheerleading program looking to be a hit

| Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, 12:19 a.m.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Autumn Serembo, 6, of North Huntingdon has her pom-poms ready at the first adaptive cheerleading practice at the Police Athletic League fields in Shafton, North Huntingdon, on Aug. 1, 2013.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Jessica Roycroft, 8, of Level Green hugs volunteer assistant Jordan Stein (right), 10, of Irwin during adaptive cheerleading practice at the Police Athletic League fields in Shafton, North Huntingdon, on Aug. 1, 2013.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Aralynn Garry (foreground), 5, of Irwin and Sarah Skarja, 15, of North Huntingdon learn a routine at adaptive cheerleading practice at the Police Athletic League fields in Shafton, North Huntingdon, on Aug. 1, 2013.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Brooke Hildenbrand (right), 13, of West Newton looks to coach Jenn McCutcheon as they practice jumps at adaptive cheerleading practice at the Police Athletic League fields in Shafton, North Huntingdon, on Aug. 1, 2013.

Brooke Hildenbrand, 13, of West Newton has Down syndrome and is active in numerous local adaptive sports programs.

She does gymnastics at Ultimate Gymnastics in Delmont and cheers competitively for the Steel City All Stars in Plum.

But at the Police Athletic League's adaptive cheerleading, she will have the opportunity to cheer for a team for the first time.

PAL in Norwin is hosting an adaptive cheerleading program, PAL's Mighty Knights, at the PAL Baseball Complex on Wednesday and Thursday evenings throughout August and in the fall for children 18 and younger with special needs. The team will cheer on Norwin's midget football team at some home games.

“I like the cheers a lot,” Brooke said. “I like the pom-poms. I like my friends that cheer.”

PAL, a youth-focused nonprofit organization operating in conjunction with the local police force, offers various sports activities for children in the community, including adaptive softball. Jen McCutcheon, 35, of North Irwin is a member of PAL's executive board and a volunteer coach for PAL's cheerleading squad. She wanted to create an adaptive program that would enable girls with special needs to have the same cheering opportunities as other girls.

“I've never believed in excluding anybody because you don't look perfect or you're not like me,” she said. “I don't think that's fair.”

McCutcheon approached the executive board for approval several months ago. All agreed to start the program.

“Our adaptive softball program is very successful, so when Jen presented this to us, it was a no-brainer,” said board president Bob Rizzo, 45, of North Huntingdon. “Everybody should have a chance to do everything.”

With the help of several other PAL volunteers and parents of special needs children, McCutcheon organized the program this summer.

The Mighty Knights' first practices were held last Wednesday and Thursday. The Mighty Knights practice at the same time as PAL's cheer squad, the Termites, giving the groups the chance to communicate.

“We integrate them at intervals when we feel that they can handle it,” McCutcheon said. “Then we pull them (the Mighty Knights) out and work with them by ourselves.”

Brooke and five other girls spent two hours learning and practicing moves and routines on Thursday, including the “Jam” cheer. The girls bob their heads and play air guitar, chanting “J! A! M! You've got to jam! Oh Baby!”

“Brooke has more spirit than any cheerleader I've met in all my years,” McCutcheon said, as Hildenbrand let out a cheerful “Woo hoo” from the practice field.

Paula Hildenbrand proudly watched her daughter clap and bounce around Thursday, smiling as the cheerleader showed off her “high V” and “low V” cheer moves.

“She's just loving this,” Hildenbrand said. “She loves to have fun. She just loves to be out. I knew she would love it. I knew it.”

As a parent, Paula is grateful for programs like Mighty Knights, which help expose typically developing children to those with special needs at a young age.

“I think kids are much more accepting today,” she said. “There wasn't stuff like this even 10 years ago. We're falling into good timing. There are programs and lots of things for kids (with special needs) to do.”

Angel Zucco, 24, of Level Green brought her sister, Jessica Roycroft, 8, to the program Thursday. Jessica, who has Down syndrome, previously participated in PAL's adaptive baseball, but her real passion is cheerleading, Zucco said.

“At home, she grabbed her pom-poms and started doing the ‘high V' and was showing my fiance all the stuff she learned yesterday,” Zucco said.

Zucco said she is thankful for the integration of the cheerleading squads as it will help the girls develop their communication and cognitive skills.

“I think it's really nice for the other kids to get some exposure at such a young age to other kids with disabilities,” she said. “It's important for children to have awareness of that at a young age. … I think it's really important for (children with special needs) to be able to be involved in activities that typical children are able to do. They're just as capable of doing it. I think it's great that somebody actually gives them an opportunity to do it.”

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or nchynoweth@tribweb.com.

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