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9-year-old cheerleader doesn’t let her disability stop her

Gigi Cunningham, the daughter of Bruce and Stacey Cunningham has very let Down syndrome keep her from living life to the fullest. This 9-year-old fourth grader at New Town Elementary is a cheerleader in the Cuthbertson Middle School Athletic Booster Club program.

“I love it. I love to cheer! I do cartwheels and gymnastics!” Those are the words of 9-year-old Gigi Cunningham, a fourth grader at New Town Elementary and a cheerleader in the Cuthbertson Middle School Athletic Booster Club program.

Gigi, the daughter of Bruce and Stacey Cunningham has a disability, Down Syndrome, yet her family has never let that hold her back from enjoying all that life has to offer. October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month and we here at the South Charlotte Sports Report would like to draw awareness to this disability by sharing the wonderful story of Gigi Cunningham and the spirit and love she has found in her community.

According to Gigi’s mother Stacey, “Gigi has been involved in activities with typical children and children with disabilities since she was small. She has participated in soccer, baseball, dance, gymnastics, and she currently does cheerleading and Girl Scouts.

“Gigi was a cheerleader for the Little Angels, a cheerleading squad for children with disabilities when she was younger. Her sister, Brooke, was on the middle school cheer team, and now is on a competition team, so Gigi has seen her sister cheering.

“When we found out that the fourth-fifth grade football team was going to add cheerleaders this year, we asked Gigi if she would like to try out. She immediately said, ‘YES,’ and we had no doubt that she would give it her all.

“Her sister, Brooke, worked with her everyday learning the dance, the chant, and the cheer, and Gigi went to all the practice clinics they offered before tryouts. All of her hard work paid off, and we were all elated that Gigi made the team!”

The entire team has been very welcoming to Gigi, providing amazing support along the way. “We are incredibly blessed to live in the community that we live in,” Stacey said. “We moved here when she was 18 months, and everyone in the community seems to know Gigi! The community as a whole, our neighborhood, the school, her Girl Scout troop, and the cheerleading team and staff have embraced her and welcomed her with open arms.”

She is supported, encouraged, and loved. Gigi benefits greatly by being on the school cheer team – she has made many friends, she is included with her peers, and she is a valued member of the team.

We feel that the typical kids benefit as well. They learn to embrace people who have differences; they see that with hard work and determination, people can do a lot of things; and finally, they learn that Gigi is more like them than she is different. Participating in an activity outside of school, like cheerleading, is so important for Gigi because, socially, it gives her an opportunity to build relationships with kids outside of school.”

Choosing to be a cheerleader is not an easy task for Gigi. One of the challenges she faces is that most people with Down syndrome have difficulty with working memory, so Gigi works very hard to learn the cheers.

The great thing about cheerleading, though, is that they practice the cheers over and over, and that gives her the opportunity to learn them. Gigi is also a very visual learner, so she will often watch one of her teammates to make sure she is doing it right.

The experience of the entire team has been so eye-opening for everyone. We asked a few of Gigi’s teammates to tell us about their teammate.

“Gigi is a friend you can count on when you had a bad day she will make you happy,” said teammate Carley Wilton. “She is like no other, she could make you cry because of her courage. Gigi well stop it nothing to be like any other kid. I love her for that.”

Kylie Cotton said, “When Gigi smiles it makes me smile. I am so glad that she is on our cheer team; it would not be the same without her. She loves to give me hugs.”

One of the team parents, Valerie Parrella added, “It has also been a joy watching Gigi grow up as a member of the New Town Elementary School family. I cannot help but smile whenever I see her. She is such a happy child and she shares that happiness with those around her.

“Personally, I was thrilled to see her at the summer cheer clinics and so hopeful that she would become a member of the team,” Valerie said. “Her enthusiasm, stamina and hard work are paying off. She's a key member of the team and I know the girls are supporting her and cheering her on. She will learn from them and they will learn from her. My daughter, Meghan loves cheering with Gigi and is excited about the progress she has made. I think it's important for the girls to know and understand that things don't always come easily for some people and that compassion and patience make us all better people.”

Gigi’s mother, Stacey, offered on final quote. “In closing, I never want anyone to have pity or feel sorry for Gigi because of her disability – she leads a very full, rich, happy, life, and we do our best to provide her opportunities. We would like people to see Gigi’s abilities and possibilities. She truly is an inspiration!”

There is so much we can learn from life simply by getting to know others that may not be identical to us. Gigi’s spirit is very contagious and we know she will continue to have a major impact in her community.

Gigi, we wish you the very best in all your endeavors! Keep leading those cheers and making everyone proud to call you a friend.

-- Reprinted coutesy of Tripp Roakes publisher of South Charlotte Sports Report.

Written by: Tripp Roakes, South Charlotte Sports Report
Posted: Oct 31, 2012 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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