Derry Area student transitions into Saint Vincent cheerleading squad
Kaylen Siko and her teammates know how to shake a leg — and an arm — to encourage players on the basketball court at Saint Vincent College’s Robert S. Carey Student Center.
The Saint Vincent cheerleading squad had plenty to get pumped up about Tuesday as the men’s basketball team defeated visiting Thiel College, 80-58, to advance in the playoffs.
Kaylen also gets encouragement from her squad, which she joined while attending her first year of Saint Vincent’s Bearcats B.E.S.T. (Building Excellence Through Skills Training) program — a transition program for older high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Kaylen, 18, of Derry Township, who has Down syndrome, could continue attending high school classes until her 21st birthday. The three-year Saint Vincent program allows her instead to mingle with peers on the Unity college campus while exploring new interests and friendships and, ideally, finding a path for ongoing employment.
Kaylen’s mother, Karen Siko, said participation in the Saint Vincent program has improved her daughter’s social skills.
“She loves it here,” her mother said. “Even though she really is quiet, she has come out of her shell more. She seems to talk more and be more social. It’s helping her confidence.”
Kaylen has 10 years of cheering experience behind her at Derry Area School District, starting with the “midget” youth program. She also participated in the district’s swim program for five years.
She made a” seamless transition” when she joined the Saint Vincent cheerleading squad for the current winter sports season, according to coach Samm Firestone.
“Kaylen brings a passion to the team and a spark that is noticeable by everyone,” Firestone said. “She loves being in uniform cheering with friends and supporting the Bearcats. It’s great to see her around campus interacting with the other cheerleaders on a daily basis. It’s a joy for me and the team to have her around.”
With some helpful cues from fellow squad members before Tuesday’s game, Kaylen practiced a series of spirited moves to accompany the Saint Vincent “fight song.”
“It is so much fun working with her on the team,” said Jessica Packard, 21, a senior from Pittsburgh. “She brings so much energy.”
Cheering alongside Kaylen is particularly meaningful for senior Stephanie Mitchell, 21, of Carmichaels, who is majoring in education with a minor in special education. “I have family members who have disabilities,” Mitchell noted. “It really touched home with me that I was able to, not only help someone with things like this in the classroom, but also in extracurricular activities.”
During a post-game meal at a local restaurant, Karen Siko said, “Three of the girls from the basketball team came over to our table and they thanked Kaylen for being a cheerleader and said how nice it is to have her on the team.”
Traditional Saint Vincent students have spent time with Kaylen and other Bearcat B.E.S.T. participants at organized events, including a local bowling outing, Karen Siko noted.
Seventeen students from eight area school districts are enrolled in the Bearcat B.E.S.T. program as it continues its fourth year of operation. Most of the nine students who have graduated have made the transition to ongoing jobs.
“We’re looking for them to gain employment,” said Amy Hildebrand, executive director of Bearcats B.E.S.T. “In the first and second years, they complete internships on campus. In the third year, they can take externships off campus” — gradually increasing their weekly work schedule from just four hours, on campus, to 18 hours, with such employers as Excela Health, Giant Eagle and Pizza Siena.
For now, Kaylen assists with cleaning tasks at the Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve, based in a barn at the outskirts of the Saint Vincent campus. But she wouldn’t mind working in a nail salon, she notes, as she displays her own crimson fingernails, complete with a heart-shaped Valentine’s Day applique.
In addition to academic instruction, B.E.S.T. program participants attend courses on such practical matters as househ0ld management.
“We encourage them to participate as much as possible in (campus) events,” Hildebrand said. “They have access to everything a matriculated undergraduate would have.”
At the end of the three years, Kaylen will receive a certificate for completing the Bearcat B.E.S.T. program as well as her high school diploma, which will be presented in a ceremony at the college.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .