By Michelle Perras-Charron

What if there was a place where a child's disability did not matter? What if a special place existed where everyone was simply on the same team -- working together, helping each other, cheering each other on? The Challenger Cheer team of South County Pop Warner Football and Cheer is that place. Here, children with a diverse variety of special needs meet three days a week and literally cheer for each other.

The Challenger program is new to South County Pop Warner this fall and is the only program of its kind in the Central Mass League, which reaches far beyond the middle of the state, extending into Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The mission of the Pop Warner Challenger Division is to bring the Pop Warner experience to boys and girls with special needs between the ages of 5 and 18. Challenger Cheer teams are non-competitive, however, they do perform for audiences and cheer at football teams.

Central Mass Pop Warner Football and Cheer is headed by Ginger Ferraro, who serves as cheer and dance director. She is also the assistant coach for the Challenger Cheer team of South County, which she helped establish this year alongside her daughter, Ashley Ferraro, who serves as head coach.

After seeing other Challenger teams across the country, Ginger said she wanted to offer a Challenger team for children with physical and/or mental disabilities in Central Massachusetts. And although she's been trying to establish one for the past five years, there just wasn't enough support -- until now.

"We really pushed and pushed this year," she says. "It's really exciting, and we're thankful that this year it took off. We're hoping it will continue to grow each year."

Bonnie Czernicki, whose 8-year-old son Matthew has Down syndrome, says she was skeptical of the program when she enrolled Matthew in August. She had tried other local sports organizations, including Challenger teams, but often found they still ran at a faster pace than he could handle.

"With cheering, it's very repetitive and there's a routine," Czernicki says. "I think that is comforting for him."

She adds that being part of the South County Challenger team is comforting for her, too.

"It's nice for me, as the parent, to be with other parents that understand," she notes. "Even though the children on the team have different disabilities, we all have a common bond."

The Challenger Cheer team initially piqued Czernicki's interest partly because Matthew's older sister was a cheerleader. She reports Matthew is thoroughly enjoying being on the team of six, where he is one of two boys.

Aside from the routine and repetitive nature of cheer, Czernicki also credits Head Coach Ashley Ferraro's structuring of the class, which is specifically designed for children with special needs.

"Ashley is amazing because she is a special education teacher," Czernicki says.

A Pop Warner cheerleader from the ages of 7 to 15, Ashley also cheered for her high school, and later at Westfield State University. She earned an undergraduate degree in special education and has been a teacher in Springfield for the past five years, working with children with autism while continuing her studies in a graduate program.

"I jumped on the opportunity to coach," she says. "It's an incredible opportunity for children with special needs to do something they're not often given the chance to do."

Ashley says she uses a color-coded visual schedule board at practice, dividing activities into 10- to 15-minute time blocks so the children know what activities to expect and what's happening next. She also uses a timer to help transition from one activity to the next, which can be difficult for children with special needs.

"I'm taking things I've learned in the classroom and applying it to this program," she adds. "I hear stories from other parents and teachers about how difficult it is for [special needs] kids to participate in programs, because programs offered through towns and cities are often not accommodating. There's a certain population of kids who have more significant needs, and there's just not a lot out there for these kids."

The Challenger team also takes part in "team time" during practices, an opportunity for the kids to get to know one another through crafts, games, dancing, and team-building activities. During team time, the children learn how to get along with each other, share, and interact.

"We want them to walk away feeling good about themselves," Ginger Ferraro says. "We're setting goals for the kids, but at the same time we want them to have fun." To accomplish this, adjustments are made during practice based on how the kids are reacting, she notes.

Meghan Rith of Northbridge enrolled her 8-year-old twin daughters, Zahra and Zoey, in the program after learning about the team on Facebook. She thought the program sounded promising, and her daughters were excited to give it a try. Rith, whose daughters are both on the autism spectrum, says she has enrolled them in other activities in the past, but has yet to find the right fit -- until now.

Like fellow parent Czernicki, Rith also attributes her children's success thus far to Ashley's class structure, as well as her understanding of the children's needs.

"Ashley is the most important part of the team," Rith says. "She's really the glue that holds the team together."

While the class is very structured, it progresses at a pace her daughters are comfortable with, Rith adds: "Having a routine is crucial to keeping my girls engaged, but it's at their pace. My girls can sit down if needed, because they feel safe enough to take a break."

Rith echoes Czernicki, explaining it's also a judgement-free zone for parents: "I feel very relaxed here, where in other settings I was tense. We probably wouldn't be doing an extracurricular if we weren't on this team. It's been three weeks so far, and that's the longest we've lasted anywhere."

Rith hopes Zahra and Zoey, who both struggle with social interactions, make new friends and feel the comradery that comes from being part of a team.

While South County Pop Warner is based in South Central Massachusetts, Ginger Ferraro says the Challenger team is not confined to the area and can accept children from anywhere in the state. More information about the Challenger team can be found at centralmass-popwarner.org or by emailing Cheer Coordinator Bridgette Ebbeling at bridgetteebbeling@gmail.com.

Pop Warner regional cheer competitions will take place next month in Springfield, where the Challenger team will perform for an audience. The first week of December, the team hopes to travel to the Pop Warner National Championships at Walt Disney World, where again, they will have the opportunity to perform non-competitively.

"I want them to feel like they can do whatever they set their minds to," Ashley says. "Their disability does not limit them, but makes them unique and awesome."

Michelle Perras-Charron is a freelance writer and mother to four school-aged boys in Western Mass. A Navy brat and also the wife of a retired Air Force Captain, she loves writing about people and all topics related to parenting. She also enjoys running and a strong cup of coffee.