"Blue Devil All Stars: A step above the rest. When you’re running with the Devils, you’re taking on the best. (clap, clap) Inferno!"
The cheer, claps and jumps sound and look like any other cheerleading squad, but at second glance these kids are not typical cheerleaders. Inferno is the special needs cheerleading team that is fully sponsored by the Liberty Cheer Institute, in Broomall, Pa. Amanda Kingsland, MSOT'08, program director and head coach, started the team as part of her occupational therapy senior capstone project.
"Inferno was a group of children who were quiet and kept to themselves," says Kingsland of the team whose 15 members range in age from 7 to 16 and have special needs which include developmental disabilities such as Down Syndrome, autism, mental retardation, ADD and ADHD. "After a few weeks, the group started to come together, the children became athletes and the adults became strong coaches. Now the athletes are high-fiving one another, cheering each other on and starting to make friends. Everyone is truly having a good time, as evidenced by hearing laughter, seeing smiles and feeling the love."
Although Kingsland developed Inferno as part of her degree completion, the project has meant more to her than simply fulfilling a requirement. "I wanted to combine my love for cheerleading and OT," she explains. Kingsland spent eight years as a cheerleader for the Clifton Heights Boys Club, a recreational league in her hometown, and she was a volunteer coach during college. While she was considering topics for her senior project, she saw a TV program about a special needs cheerleading team. "I knew right away that I should use my occupational therapy background to start a cheerleading program for special needs kids," she recalls. She met with advisor Kathy Swenson-Miller, PhD, OTR/L, assistant professor, and got to work researching special needs and developing goals for the program.
"I learned that these kids are generally pretty isolated and they don't have many opportunities to build friendships outside of their families," Kingsland says. "They attend siblings' events, but don't participate in their own activities." She set goals for the program: increase social participation, develop self esteem and build friendships. Then she contacted the cheerleading organization United States All Star Federation, which gave her guidelines for special needs teams.
Kingsland promoted the team to public and special needs schools in Delaware County, posted information on community bulletin boards and had three news articles written about her plans. She recruited 12 volunteer coaches to meet the needs of the 15 children who signed up. In July 2008, Inferno started meeting for a 90-minute practice each week, preparing for monthly exhibitions from November through March.
NBC 10 featured Inferno on the "Game Changers with Jade McCathy" show in December. One cheerleader told NBC, "The thing I love about cheerleading is that it's fun, I get to hang out with my friends and I love the coaches." Kingsland says that basic things like having a uniform makes the cheerleaders feel good about themselves: "They're smiling, their self esteem has gone up and it's just amazing to watch," she shares.