Thursday, October 13, 2011

Chicago-area high school embraces inclusion for its cheerleading squad

From the Chicago Tribune. In the picture, Abby Rusin, 16, left, and Kathryn Dungan, 15, are lifted up during a football game at Wheaton Warrenville South High School.

At a recent practice at Wheaton Warrenville South High School, Abby Rusin and Kathryn Dungan clapped along to the beat of their fellow cheerleaders, beaming from the top of a small pyramid formation.

Abby and Kathryn aren't typical for high school varsity cheerleaders, and not merely because they're both sophomores. Abby, 16, has Down syndrome; Kathryn, 15, has cerebral palsy.

Many high schools, park districts and private competitive groups provide opportunities to people with special needs to be involved in cheerleading. Wheaton Warrenville South has taken the spirit of inclusion further than many schools in providing spots on the "mainstream" squad to girls with disabilities.

At this cheer practice — the day before the big homecoming game against the West Chicago Wildcats — the friendship, compassion and acceptance among all the members of the squad was apparent.

"When you see them, you can tell how much the girls appreciate Abby and Kathryn and how much Abby and Kathryn appreciate the girls," varsity cheer coach Kristina Collsen said.

Collsen said Abby and Kathryn, who had to try out for the team, participate "to the best of their abilities" in cheer activities throughout the year, including at all Tiger football games. The girls don't participate in cheerleading competitions, though they do attend them and encourage their fellow cheerleaders.

Squad mates say the school and community have embraced the girls.

"It makes us all happier," said Kelly Ruesch, 16, a junior on the cheer squad. "We make it fun for them, and they make it fun for us."

Yvonne Rusin said being on the team has helped her daughter develop stronger social skills, feel more accepted and confident and be more involved in her high school experience. Last month, for Abby's 16th birthday, her cheer teammates decorated her locker.

"The girls put (Abby) up on the top of a pyramid (at a football game) and all of the student body goes crazy, chanting her name and she thinks she is all that and a bag of chips," Rusin said, recalling how her daughter no longer cowers and shuts down in large, loud crowds. "People are more comfortable with her and she is more comfortable with them."

Rusin said the cheerleading experience provides her daughter skills that will "open her world up" to more possibilities when she's older.

Kathryn's mom, Mary Kay Dungan, also said that cheerleading has helped her daughter, who has limited communication skills, to make social connections with her peers and in the community.

"Everyone knows her. ... They tell her she is doing a great job cheerleading and stop her at the grocery store," her mother said. "She feels the connection and has the social connection in that moment."

Dungan said it is comforting to see her daughter have her "own thing" to enhance her high school experience, just as her brothers — Kathryn is a triplet whose brothers have no disabilities — have their own activities and interests.

Recently, the family had to juggle their schedules because each child had an activity at the same time.

"It was the most normal feeling we felt since they were born," Dungan said. "Every kid had their own activity. Every kid is involved and happy and successful. It was so normal, it was abnormal for us. Kathryn had a place, and when your kids have a place, it is just an amazing feeling."

Dungan is gratified to see her daughter, who also struggles with delayed motor skills planning and sensory integration, beam when it is time to put on her cheerleading uniform, fasten the bow in her hair and apply her lip gloss.

"It is just wonderful, just being with regular peers, and they support her," Dungan said. "(Abby and Kathryn) are not isolated. They are known now. These kids are welcomed, whether in a classroom, in gymnasium or sidelines at a varsity game."

Like most parents, Kathryn's still worry sometimes about what the future will hold. But just as they have her whole life, the Dungans refuse to let anyone "put her in a box." When she was in preschool, for example, they rejected an aide's suggestion that they give Kathryn a stamp with her name, rather than teach her how to write it herself.

Besides all the other benefits, the girls have formed a close friendship. Squad mates say Abby, the more outgoing of the two, looks out for Kathryn, encouraging her and keeping her engaged.

They are like "magnets ... always right next to each other," Mary Kay Dungan said. "They are just two peas in a pod."