“She likes to be the centre of attention!” says April Benner about her daughter Makayla.
That’s why McMaster Children’s Hospital’s (MCH) cheer squad, run out of Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre (RJCHC), is perfect for the 16-year-old.
The cheer squad practices weekly and has cheered on Hamilton sports teams like the Tiger-Cats, Bulldogs, and Honey Badgers, as well as attended various community events. So far this year, the squad has 24 participants.
“Makayla loves to be out of the house and in the community. Cheer has allowed her to do that and she has so much fun while participating,” says April. “Quite often you’ll hear her laugh much louder than the music playing.”
“As long as you are willing to participate (however that may look to the individual), we will adapt the program to include all,” says Tanisha McDermott, recreation therapist at RJCHC and former Hamilton Tiger-Cats cheerleader. “Rather than the kids having to find inclusive programs out in the community, we run our cheer squad and allow the community to participate with us, with our inclusive and adaptive approach being the foundation of our program.”
The MCH autism program invited the cheer squad to perform at the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board office for World Autism Day on May 14.
When McDermott started working at RJCHC five years ago, her clinical leader Lindsay Bray reached out and asked if she wanted to start a cheer squad at RJCHC.
“Tanisha has volunteered and taught accessible dance in Hamilton for many years before becoming a therapeutic recreationist. She’s a former Ti-Cat cheerleader and our other cheer coach Dominique Krawchenko is a current member of both the Ti-Cat and The Rock dance teams, so our kids are definitely learning from the best!” says Bray.
McDermott says she loves everything about it.
“I was so excited for the opportunity and we have been going strong ever since,” she says. “I think my favorite thing is getting to know all of the kids. They are so wonderful and I always leave practice feeling so happy and ‘cheer-ful.’”
Making new friends
Makayla has been involved with MCH services from a young age.
Her family noticed she wasn’t meeting her developmental milestones at six months old, so she started seeing a developmental pediatrician and went on to be cared for by genetics doctors, gastrointestinal specialists, dieticians, occupational- and physio-therapists, speech pathologists, the Technology Access Clinic to help youth communicate, and more.
Makayla and April
“We discovered Makayla has an alteration in one of her chromosomes which causes her developmental delays. Because of this alteration, she had been diagnosed with Pitt Hopkins Disorder. Her second diagnosis is Autism,” says April.
Makayla has been dancing at a studio since she was four years old – in fact, McDermott was her teacher there. She has been part of the MCH cheer squad since it began.
Cheer squad has many benefits for Makayla, including making new friends.
“They become like family. It doesn’t matter the ability one has, because we are having fun and truly that’s what it is all about. She has even brought [typically developing] friends from her elementary school in past years to come out to cheer and they have loved it and had fun as well,” says April.
“I love the fact that typically developing children are together with children with physical or mental needs and together they create this cheer squad. It gives me so much hope for our future.”
“There are not a lot of activities like this in our community where the ability doesn’t matter. I love the fact that typically developing children are together with children with physical or mental needs and together they create this cheer squad. It gives me so much hope for our future.”
Pom poms for everyone
McDermott says cheer squad is good for different reasons for different people. Overall, the program gets bodies moving and allows participants to socialize and make friends that share a common interest. It creates opportunities for the participants to have fun and brings awareness to different abilities in the community. Not all cheerleaders participate in dance routines, but just simply enjoy being around friends in a positive environment.
Cheer squad will be performing at the Hamilton Ti-Cats game on May 28 and MacKids Walk and Wheel, a fundraiser for Hamilton Health Sciences Foundation, on June 4.
Story and pictures Hamilton Health Sciences