- Associated Press - Saturday, August 13, 2016

PLYMOUTH, Pa. (AP) - When Laurie McCall spearheaded the Plymouth Meeting-based Spartans’ Angels, she envisioned a group “that would give kids with special needs the same opportunity to be cheerleaders that many of their friends already had.”

Mission accomplished.

As summer 2016 wanes, a half-dozen Angels are revving up for their third season and looking for even more 5- to 15-year-old girls and boys to join them as they cheer on players for the popular Plymouth Whitemarsh Spartans youth football club. Spartans home games are played at East Plymouth Valley Park in Plymouth Township, but McCall welcomes prospective Angels “from anywhere . regardless of where they live.” Their practices are held twice a week during August, and Angels members perform with the Spartans’ traditional squads at game time.

Current Angels’ challenges range from autism to a variety of physical disabilities, and “anyone is welcome . whether they need a wheelchair, braces, it doesn’t matter - we’ll do our best to accommodate any girl or boy who’d like to join the squad,” McCall continues.

The Plymouth Township woman’s son is on the autism spectrum, and her inspiration was triggered by his experiences on Whitemarsh Little League’s Challenger team, her daughter’s years as a Spartans cheerleader and her own perspective as then Spartans cheerleading director.

“The thing I’ve really been trying to get across to people is that the Angels cheer squad is so flexible and so adaptable . we don’t want any parent to worry that there are strict rules and obligations (attached) to participating,” says McCall, director of student performing arts and the Platt Student Performing Arts House at the University of Pennsylvania. “As a parent, you have so many other commitments and appointments with a special needs child. Practice is only two nights a week, but if you’re only able to make one of the practices . even none . it doesn’t matter. We’re happy if you come when you can. There’s not the big obligation you have with some teams. We keep it fun and easy.”

Another unique feature - Spartans’ Angels coaches Bridget Craig, Dana Coia and Heather Ashman are all either special education teachers or related support staff at Colonial Elementary School as well as former high school and college cheerleaders. Coach Shelly D’Onofrio recently completed student-teaching at Plymouth Elementary School and is currently looking for full-time work as a special education teacher.

Craig can’t say enough about her time as an Angels coach:

“I absolutely love it. It has actually been life-changing for me. Just about every household is watching football in the fall, and this is such a terrific way for kids who might have felt left out of this great American tradition to be part of it . to be with their friends, cheering and acting silly and having fun without any of the usual demands we put on kids to do things a certain way. Such a nice experience for them . no fuss, no muss, no right or wrong way. Just a way to be social and have fun.

“Kids with special needs are just like any other kids, and this is an opportunity for them to do what other kids are doing. I always get hooked on the social piece. At school Monday and Tuesday morning, the kids talk about the games that (took place) over the weekend. On Thursday and Friday, they talk about the games that are coming up. With (the Angels), that’s another group of kids that get to share in that.

“It’s been so much fun each year - from the very beginning. But I also think it’s gotten better each year. Bottom line, I just think it’s great . a really nice opportunity for the kids.”

D’Onofrio’s cheerleading career began with the Spartans when she was 6. The Plymouth Meeting native has also coached the organization’s competition squad.

“It’s been great,” says D’Onofrio, a 2011 Plymouth Whitemarsh alum and PW cheerleader. “We don’t have a lot of kids at the moment, but we have a lot of fun. There’s no pressure. It’s just for fun. And we are very flexible. If someone can’t make a game or a practice, that’s fine.”

According to McCall, “The Spartans organization as a whole has been very supportive, and we’re very thankful for the part they’ve played in making this work.” An additional nod goes to Plymouth Meeting’s Little Tower Foundation “for the generous grant they’ve given us . which means there are no fees for belonging to the Spartans’ Angels.”

The PW Spartans belong to the Keystone State Football League. More information is available at the Plymouth Whitemarsh Spartans website, pwspartans.org, or via email to [email protected]

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2aWcdQI

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Information from: The Times Herald, https://www.timesherald.com/

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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