For three weeks, Barrington High School’s cheerleaders have been teaching different routines to young girls with Down syndrome, but it has been the varsity squad that has been learning a thing or two from the kids.
“(Gigi’s Gems) have given us a different prospective,” Alexa Hanaford said of working with the aspiring girls with Down syndrome who are a part of Gigi’s Playhouse. “Their outlook is so different, and they are always so happy.”
“It’s been awesome and the whole experience has been unbelievable,” Melissa Mersch, one of the many co-coaches and varsity cheerleaders working with the young girls said. “Everything is just so positive when you are around them.”
Mersch, Hanaford, Courtney Quigley and a handful of cheerleaders were the visionaries behind starting a special needs cheer program in conjunction with Gigi’s Playhouse, called Gigi’s Gems, even after they encountered some initial roadblocks.
“We tried to start the program at the high school,” Mersch said prior to her and the Gems performance at the eighth annual Gigi’s Playhouse 5K Fun Run held June 12 at South Barrington’s Arboretum. “The idea just didn’t work out.”
The Bronco Cheerleaders suspected a multitude of reasons, including financial as well as insurance issues, as the reason their initial push for the idea never quite materialized.
Not to be stopped, Mersch and the others networked and stumbled upon an opportunity to assist with the young girls at Gigi’s Playhouse, and didn’t hesitate to jump in and get started.
“We went to the Playhouse a few times and volunteered to get to know the girls,” Mersch said. “It went really well from there.”
After securing some funding for startup, the six original cheerleaders began expanding the coaching staff to the now 17 different members (10 high school cheerleaders) who help out with the different aspects of the program. Although there have been only three weeks of practices for everyone involved, the experience is already beginning to prove successful.
“It’s a huge self-esteem boost and really helps (the kids at Gigi’s Playhouse) learn the fundamentals of cheering,” Nancy Gianni, founder of Gigi’s Playhouse said of the impact the high school cheerleaders had on the younger participants. “And of course the girls will always remember being on stage.”
Gigi’s Gems already have begun showing off their hard work and different routines at various events around the Barrington area.
“We performed at Relay For Life” Mersch said of the Gem’s first event. “The kids were so excited.”
The Gems also are hoping for a spot appearance at some upcoming community events.
“We might perform at the football orientation,” Mersch said of what she hopes is the next step to performing at Barrington High School-sanctioned events. “We are also going to perform at All-Star competitions as an exhibition team and different events around Barrington.”