Matthews – Mint Hill Weekly
MATTHEWS – Connie Mulroy was fed up with the lack of athletic options for her daughter, Brielle, who has Down syndrome.
So, the Matthews resident took matters into her own hands and started Charlotte Allstar Cheerleaders (CAC) Angels cheer team for children with disabilities at the International Sports Center (ISC) in 2007.
“I was frustrated with the state-provided play care for 0 to 3 years (old), because I felt they were not aggressive enough in building strength,” Mulroy, a resident of the Shanamara subdivision, said.
Mulroy worked as a competitive gymnastics trainer at ISC in Matthews from 1998 until 2003, when she had her daughter, Brielle.
In addition to Down syndrome, Brielle was born with a heart condition, atrial septal defect – a common condition for children with Down syndrome – and needed a lot of extra support. So, she gave up her career to focus on taking care of Brielle.
When Brielle was 5 years old, Mulroy enrolled and shadowed her in a typical gymnastics class at the ISC.
“The staff (ISC) has always been accepting and willing to work with her,” she said. “Not everyone is a coach or is able to play in a gymnastics gym; that is why I started the classes.”
Mulroy, a former all-around state champion gymnast in Oklahoma, decided to merge her passion for gymnastics with her desire to help children with disabilities. She said ISC and Charlotte Allstar Cheerleaders always wanted to start a cheerleading program for children with disabilities, so it was the perfect opportunity to reach out to children who otherwise might not have many athletic opportunities.
“In the beginning, it was kind of hard because I knew nothing about cheerleading,” Mulroy said. “… Our kids were 4 and 5 years old, and they loved to be silly, run away, turn off the lights and lay down. It was always fun, and we were exhausted at the end of the hour.”
But hard work paid off – not just for Mulroy, but for the children her program helps. According to Union County residents Bill and Natalie Kinsey, who have an 8-year old son with Down syndrome, children with Down syndrome often have low muscle tone. Natalie Kinsey said their son, William, had low muscle tone prior to joining the CAC Angels three years ago.
“He couldn’t even do forward rolls, when he started … within a few months, he could do forward rolls,” Natalie Kinsey said.
Bill Kinsey also has noticed progress since William joined the team.
“It’s absolutely improving his strength,” he said.
By its sixth year, CAC Angels had grown to almost two-dozen participants. That’s when Mulroy started the CAC Diamonds. The CAC Angels is an assisted cheer team for children 5 to 10 years old. They receive support on and off the mat from volunteer, senior-level CAC cheerleaders, known as “cheer buddies.” The Diamonds, 9 to 25 years old, don’t need assistance and compete for titles in local and national competitions.
Matthews resident Rene Katkowski’s daughter, Sera, has full mutation Fragile X syndrome and autism. Sera joined the CAC Angels in spring 2010, when she was 6 years old, and has been a member of the CAC Diamonds team for two years.
“They are gaining strength and coordination through warm-ups and tumbling, refining those skills into cartwheels, memorizing routines, counting holds, spatially organizing their layout,” Katkowski said. “… The front line skills that Coach Connie requires and nurtures with the team actually cross over easily into many areas of delayed development – social, emotional and physical.”
The Diamonds recently received third place in their division, representing North Carolina at Cheersport’s national cheerleading competition in Atlanta, Georgia, on Saturday, Feb. 14. The team competed against 16 out of 26 other teams at the largest annual competition held by Cheersport for special-needs cheer teams. Last year, the team came in fourth place.
“This is a tough competition, and we have a very young, diverse team,” Mulroy said. “This was only our second time to compete at this event as an unassisted team, and we rocked it. We are very happy with third place.”
As ISC’s special needs director, Mulroy’s next venture was to create a nonprofit to help offset parents’ expenses, such as uniforms and travel. She recently received 501(c)(3) status for Carolinas Exceptional Youth Athletes, and hopes to begin raising funds to support the cheer teams, a new gymnastics class for students with disabilities and a Special Olympics Gymnastics team that launches next month.
“As a former athlete, I knew with hard work, commitment and dedication children like Brielle could not only survive but thrive,” Mulroy said. “… I’ve seen the benefits gymnastics has provided me … I’m excited to share my experience by providing an inclusive sports environment for these children.”
Find more information about Carolinas Exceptional Youth Athletes at www.ceyathletes.org/.