Their red bows adorn the tops of their heads as if they’re living Christmas presents, and their pompoms rustle like the leaves outside on this brisk October day.
It’s time for the girls who make up the Southwest Austin Pop Warner Dawgs Mitey Mite cheer squad to take the floor, and 8-year-old Reese Ramirez is front and center, flashing her million-dollar smile.
Reese, clad in her red-and-black Dawgs uniform and white cheer shoes and assisted in her walker by her mom, Sasha Akroosh-Ramirez, immediately draws eyes from the hundreds of spectators who have gathered in the gym at Cedar Ridge High School for the Hill Country Pop Warner Cheer Spectacular. Many of them have never seen a cheerleader like Reese, who has cerebral palsy and is legally blind.
There was a time that Sasha, who stands behind Reese and navigates her through every move at each Dawgs practice and game, would have shunned this kind of attention for her daughter, scared of how people might react. What they might say.
But now, thanks in part to what she’s learned after two seasons with the Dawgs, Sasha’s over that. She wants her daughter to be seen. She wants her daughter to be included. And, most of all, she wants her daughter to be judged not by what she can’t do, but by what she can.
The music starts. It's time.
When Reese was born in July 2010, Sasha, her husband, Gino Ramirez, and their son, Greyson, eagerly welcomed the new baby girl. But as the months began to pass, they realized she wasn’t reaching some of the same milestones, such as sitting up, as other children her age.
By the time Reese was 18 months old, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects a child’s movement, motor skills and muscle tone.
"It’s a disconnect between the brain and the body. It doesn’t let her body do what she really wants it to," said Sasha, adding that she knew little about cerebral palsy before the diagnosis. "That’s how I explain it to my kindergarten class."
Because of her cerebral palsy, Reese is nonverbal and has difficulty controlling her arm and leg movements. She also uses a walker to get around. When she reached the age for kindergarten, Sasha, a kindergarten teacher, requested that Reese be placed in her class at Menchaca Elementary.
"The year I had her in my class I saw the humongous growth that she had socially, and the impact on the students as well," Sasha said. "I had 12 letters from parents talking about what an impact she had on the kids’ lives."
One of those letters was from Jessica Jacobs, whose daughter, Kamille, was in class with Reese and quickly became her best friend.
"Kamille just really took to her. They’re so open-minded, and their relationship was just very easy, very natural," Jacobs said. "It’s a great lesson for any child to learn, that Reese holds all the same thoughts and feelings that they do, they’re just inside."
Jill Powell, a teaching assistant who spent four years with Reese both at Menchaca Elementary and Cowan Elementary, where Reese is in second grade, said Reese has the ability to make a quick impact.
"She’s nonverbal, and she can’t walk or talk, and you have to feed her, but the thing that is so incredible about her is that she changes the mood of the room," Powell said. "There’s something so special about her, and her mom and dad just totally bring that out in her. She’s a star wherever she goes."
Having Reese in her class also allowed Sasha to get creative with class activities, like when she attached plastic eggs to helium balloons for the school’s annual Easter egg hunt so that Reese, who cannot bend down, could participate.
"When Sasha had Reese, she just decided that as much as she could she was going to be part of everything that was going on," Powell said. "Her mom never once said, ‘Oh, no, I don’t think she could do that.’ Field trips, field day, we did it. She doesn’t want her to miss out on an opportunity because of her disabilities."
Despite her unwavering belief in Reese, Sasha had never envisioned her daughter as a cheerleader. Until, that is, she was approached by an old friend, Janan Miller, who had an idea.
Miller, who at the time was the president of the Southwest Austin Pop Warner Dawgs and Hill Country Pop Warner and also a cheer coach for the Tiny Mite team, wanted to recruit Reese. As a mom to a son on the autism spectrum, Miller knew firsthand how hard it could be to find inclusive programs.
"It’s heartbreaking," Miller said. "Deep down maybe I wish someone would reach out to me (for my son) the way I reached out to Sasha. That’s certainly a small reason why I reached out to her. I knew I had something I could offer to Reese, and I didn’t want to pass that up."
Sasha was tentative. Not only would it mean dedicating herself to serving as Reese’s arms and legs for routines, but it also would mean putting her daughter on display.
"I was a little nervous of that, and people’s reaction to that," she said. "You want to always hope for the best, but you never really know what you’re going to get."
Because her friend Miller was coaching, Sasha agreed to let Reese join and got Reese's bestie, Kamille, to join, too. The team quickly clicked.
"I have a daughter who is the same age, and the kids at that age don’t see in color and they don’t necessarily see the differences they have," Miller said. "Within a couple of days there was no barrier, there was nothing differentiating between the other girls and Reese."
Miller designed a routine that showcased Reese’s abilities, and the girls, and Sasha, practiced twice a week to perfect it.
"Sasha had to learn all the cheers, the arm movements and routine choreography. She was at practices, on the sidelines and on the mats performing with all the other girls so that Reese could be included," Miller said. "I don’t know another parent that has the passion and dedication that she does."
The final competition of Reese’s first season included a portion where cheerleaders individually showcased a signature move. When it was Reese’s turn in the spotlight, the crowd erupted in applause as Sasha wiped tears from her eyes.
Even better than the applause, though, were the quiet comments that came later from parents telling her that Reese had inspired them to try something new with their own child.
"I don’t want everybody to look at what she can’t do," Sasha said. "I want them to look at what she can do, what she's great at, why she's so awesome."
It’s Tuesday evening at home and Reese is sitting in the kitchen with her big brother, Greyson, 14.
"You’re not as active today. Is it because you had practice?" he says in the high-pitched voice he reserves just for his little sister. "You’re tired because of practice now?"
At home, taking care of Reese and her needs is a family affair, from dad Gino, who wakes early to pack lunches for Reese and Sasha, to Greyson, who lovingly blows up balloons from the in-house helium tank to delight his sister. Everyone can agree, though, that Sasha keeps them afloat.
"Sasha is the rock of the family," Gino Ramirez said. "She shows us that dealing with what we deal with on a day-to-day basis is not something to be depressed about. As a family, we don’t have a problem doing anything for Reese."
Sasha said it’s difficult to describe the bond that she and Reese share.
"It’s very hard to put into words," Sasha said. "Mother-daughter relationships are super close anyway, but we have to talk without talking. Our connection and our relationship is more actions and touches and me talking to her, singing to her."
Still, she can admit there are rare times when she wonders why her daughter must face what she does.
"I’m human," she said. "I don’t dwell on it. But I do think about it when I see girls dancing with their dads on their wedding day in commercials, and I think about my dad, and I think, 'Oh, man, Reesey isn’t going to be able to do that.' But she’ll be able to experience that in a different way."
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Last Sunday, Reese’s second season with the Dawgs wrapped up with a cheer showcase at Cedar Ridge High School, which included a daddy-daughter dance off to Drake’s "In My Feelings."
On the floor of the gym, Gino embraced both of his daughter’s hands to move in time with the music, then bent down to gently kiss her cheek.
Shortly after, Kamille and Reese posed for pictures together.
"I like being friends with Reese because she is one of a kind. She is always nice, and I really like her laugh, plus she’s always happy," Kamille said. "I think she will be my friend forever, and I love her."
Reese and Kamille are looking forward to another season with the Dawgs next year, and both hope to one day cheer in high school, perhaps for the Dawgs’ partner school, Bowie High. They also hope to one day have a sleepover together.
"I hope what people take from it is the importance of inclusion," Miller said. "As long as Reese is having a good time and as long as Sasha is able and willing to, we want her to be part of the team for as long as they want to be. We will absolutely do whatever we can to make sure that can happen, and we welcome anyone else who is interested."
With more doors being opened more often — last month Nike signed a runner with cerebral palsy — Sasha is confident that from sleepovers to cheerleading, her daughter can do anything she sets her mind to. Mostly, though, she just wants her to know how very much she's loved.
"I thank God that she was given to us, and that we can raise her with love and with grace and with patience," Sasha said. "The main thing is she’s loved and she feels loved and cherished all day long. I just want her to be happy and know that she’s adored."
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