The Capital of Annapolis

GLEN BURNIE, Md. (AP) — Chris Brown never thought any of her daughters would be involved in cheerleading. She thought that world was full of short skirts and superficial girls.

But Brown changed her mind when cheerleading became a life-altering experience for her daughter, who has Down syndrome.

Four years ago, Brown enrolled Laila in the Storm Chasers, one of two special-needs teams run by Maryland Twisters, a competitive cheerleading gym.

“It’s been wonderful because she is able to have the confidence,” Brown said. “It amazed me that they were able to teach them the routine, the discipline and for her be able to get in front of an entire stadium and perform a cheer.”

Laila, now 11, said she loves performing in front of a crowd.

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “I like doing cartwheels.”

None of that would be possible without Tara Cain of Pasadena, the owner of Maryland Twisters. Comprised of 26 competitive teams, her business has won national and world titles. Athletes travel from all over the East Coast to train at her gyms in Glen Burnie and Waldorf. About 500 athletes are divided among 26 teams, including 40 special needs members, such as Lalia.

On Tuesday, The Arc of the Central Chesapeake Region presented Cain with the Community Participation Award for commitment to including people with developmental disabilities into their communities.

“I wish there was something we could do to make a difference in her life like she has done to our lives,” said Brown, who nominated her.

Cain and coach Sharon Myrick, whose son has Down syndrome, started the program in 2003 after seeing a special needs division during a competition. Today, Storm Chasers is features children ages 6 to 10, and Eye of the Storm is comprised of kids ages 12 and up.

Myrick, who suggested adding the new team, already was involved in the special needs community, so she was able to recruit kids who wanted to participate. Cain and the coaches held events to get people interested and to raise money.

“When we saw there was a division and therefore interest. I was like `I think this is awesome, let’s do it,’ ” Cain said. “You don’t have to have experience. We take anyone.”

Cain, a cheerleader in high school and college, said she is inspired by the dedication Myrick and the other coaching demonstrate in working with a team that comes with many challenges. Watching their work pay off is an incredible sight, said Cain, who has been coaching for 20 years.

“If I’m having a bad day I realize life is a gift. They truly love what they do. This is why I do what I do,” she said.

Cain said she knows that parents of children with disabilities face a lot of daily struggles, so she doesn’t want them to pay for the program. The $50 entry fee is the lone cost that parents of Storm Chasers and Eye of the Storm members pay. Cain spends much of her time getting support from local companies.

All the other cheerleaders are asked to raise money for the special needs teams through sales and car washes. The cheerleaders also mentor the teams, and shadow them in practice.

“I want the athletes to learn a valuable lesson,” Cain said. “It’s important to support their peers, even when they are faced with challenges.”

Cheerleading is an expensive sport, costing as much as $25,000 a year. It is not something that most parents of a child with a disability could normally participate in, Brown said. Many of the costs of care are not covered by health insurance, and can easily reach $10,000 a year, she said.

“Things like sports that are expensive, many times there’s just no way. I don’t think that we would have done it,” Brown said.

Myrick, whose son Jimmy is in Eye of the Storm, said Cain has been the biggest supporter of the two special needs teams, providing them with practice time and financial support. Cain frequently visited Jimmy when he was hospitalized with leukemia.

When Jimmy returned to the gym after getting out of the hospital it was difficult for him to get in the building because he was in a wheelchair. So Cain raised money and used some of her own funds to build a wheelchair lift in the gym.

“The first few times getting in the gym it was very stressful. It made him very nervous,” said Myrick, who received an ARC award last year. “Once the lift was in it certainly took all that anxiety away.”

The special needs athletes learn how to follow direction and use space management, she said. The coaches also work on motor skills. Through the training and competitions they become more confident in themselves and become risk-takers.

“We want to showcase their ability, not their disability,” Myrick said.

Many people with developmental disabilities struggle to be part of the crowd, Brown said, but the Maryland Twisters gives them a chance to excel. If they can learn a routine and perform in front of a thousand people, they can be successful in any social setting, like a classroom, she said.

“Most parents still cry when they watch that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a parent whose child has done it for the first time not cry,” Brown said.

Cain said she is honored to be a part of the families lives. She believes no matter what struggles a child is going through, they should have the opportunity to be a normal kid.

But while she is flattered that she received an award for her work, Cain said she doesn’t believe she deserves it.

“As a human being anyone would do this,” Cain said. “It’s my duty.”

The lives of the families involved in the special needs team has changed forever, Brown said. The children now have friends and feel loved and supported by society, she said.

“Tara is a beautiful person inside and out. She’s given a gift to a sport,” Brown said. “If we had more Tara Cain’s in the world it would be a better place.”

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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