‘Special’ guests welcomed with open arms by Panthers cheer team

Cheer4 Cheer1 Cheer2 Cheer3By LISA CAPOBIANCO
Nancy Lopez of Plainville walked into the gymnasium of Central Valley Cheerleading Training Center feeling like an “all star.” Dressed in a pink sweatshirt and black exercise pants, Nancy came ready to cheerleading practice with a smile on her face, showing her enthusiasm to everyone around her.
Nancy is one of several cheerleaders who has become an active participant in the special needs team of the Central Valley Panthers’ All-Star Cheerleading Program. From Down syndrome to autism to cerebral palsy, the special needs team at Central Valley welcomes participants of all neurological or physical disorders, giving them the opportunity to become “all stars” themselves.
“It gives me such pride,” said Elfrieda Buettemeyer, who has served as Nancy’s caregiver for 11 years. “They are achieving, and it is just amazing to me.”
Practicing every Monday evening, Nancy, along with her fellow teammates, performs various choreographic moves with the help of two coaches certified in special needs, along with a half dozen all-star cheerleaders of Central Valley Panthers who volunteer their time. The coaches, Jake Dutkiewicz and Stephanie Kiback, help modify various moves to meet the needs of each individual team member, slowing down the pace if needed. Parents and guardians filled out a questionnaire prior to the practices to learn more about their participants’ condition, determining how to adapt to each participant on an individual level.
“It is nice to make them feel like they are part of a team,” said Jake, adding that he has wanted a special needs team from the time the gym first opened. “It is an hour you can appreciate what you do,” added Stephanie, who plans to receive a Master’s Degree in a special needs subject area.
Valerie Durkin, an all-star cheerleader who has devoted time to volunteering for the special needs team, enjoys watching the participants perform and memorize routines. While volunteering, Valerie, along with her fellow cheerleaders, has helped the participants during a choreographic routine by spotting them or helping them coordinate.
“It is really nice to see them enjoy all the acts we do,” said Valerie, who has been an all-star cheerleader for three years now.
The Central Valley Panthers started fundraising for the special needs team last summer, and started recruitment in the fall. Debbie Durkin, Valerie’s mother, said she feels proud of the special needs team established at Central Valley Panthers. Durkin said she hopes the special needs team will recruit more members.
“They are really energetic,” said Durkin, referring to the participants’ level of enthusiasm.
Chris Gilbert, the owner of Central Valley Panthers, also said she hopes more participants will join the team. In March, the special needs team will perform a brief choreographic routine with the All-Star Panthers by their side during the CHEERSPORT Champion-ship at the Connecticut Convention Center, receiving trophies at the end.
“These guys can still do the same things we can,” Gilbert said.
Anyone age 10 and up interested in joining the special needs team can contact Central Valley Panthers at (860) 793-1287.
Comments? Email lcapobianco@SouthingtonObserver.com.