Squad goals: Cerebral palsy can't stop Niveyah's cheer

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When young girls dream of being a cheerleader, it usually doesn’t seem like a far-fetched idea. But for 9-year-old Warwick resident Niveyah Colantuono, the hurdles seemed insurmountable.

Niveyah has cerebral palsy, and with limited use of her arms and being unable to walk, her request to her mother, Maya Colantuono, didn’t seem like an obvious fit. Her father, former Warwick City Councilman Steven Colantuono, said Niveyah’s desire to be a cheerleader began when she was watching videos on YouTube.

“She was watching videos first, and then she said, I want to be a cheerleader,” he said.

Now a “full-fledged” member of the Warwick PAL Patriots Mighty Mites Pop Warner Cheer Squad, Niveyah performed with her squad at the last game of the season Sunday, Oct. 29 at Cranston Stadium. Smiling ear-to-ear while throwing her arms up alongside her squad, Niveyah’s happiness was a ray of light on the cloudy and rainy morning.

“She’s a cheerleader, it’s her personality,” Maya said. “She makes everybody happy.”

Maya was concerned whether Niveyah would need to join a separate team for children with special needs, but was pleasantly surprised by the response.

“We signed her up and I wasn’t sure what the reception would be and they were like, of course, sure,” Maya said.

That could be due to Warwick Cheerleader Coordinator Kelly Gibb’s background working with adults and children with special needs.

“With my profession, I knew we’ll make this work, we’ll choreograph her in,” Gibb said. “She’s been awesome this year, the girls love having her.”

Both Maya and Gibb agreed the girls welcomed Niveyah without hesitation and included her as a member of the team. Practices started Aug. 1, meeting twice a week for two hours each session.

Due to Niveyah’s use of a wheelchair, she requires assistance moving into position during cheers. Her teammates never forget to move her, sometimes even fighting for their turn to help.

“If they’re on the field during half-time, their instinct is to run off the field. Not one of them forgets, they make sure that she comes off,” Gibb said.

Attending grade three at Wyman Elementary School, Niveyah was happy to find have lifelong friend, 9-year-old Lana Gavitt, from school was also in her squad. Lana’s position in formation is standing right next to Niveyah.

With each turn to face the crowd, Lana swings Niveyah into position. She said she loves that Niveyah is on the team and hopes she cheers next year as well.

When asked what her favorite part of joining was, besides the cheering, Niveyah said it was making new friends.

Saturday morning on Oct. 28, the Colantuono family hosted a “hair party” at their Warwick home on Country Club Drive. Maya said Niveyah was excited to have her new friends over, and the girls enjoyed seeing her room. The team primped in preparation of the statewide Ocean State Pop Warner Cheer Competition later in the day.

An eye-opener for Maya was the last squad to compete – a Challenger Team consisting completely of special needs cheerleaders. She said although there is a place for it, she felt separating the girls was in a way doing them all a disservice. Maya believes that the team, including Niveyah, all benefit from the inclusion and teach each other to be more accepting and open-minded of people of any ability.

“The girls are so generous, and so open-minded,” she said. “All these kids are going to grow up with a different perspective about people with special needs because they had the chance to get to know her at a personal level when they were kids.”

Maya and Steve Colantuono fostered Niveyah at 10 months old and adopted her when she was 4 years old. Using an app on her iPad, she is able to communicate by pressing words spoken through the device. Steven Colantuono said it opens up her world, allowing her to vocalize her thoughts.

“She gives her parents a hard time, just like any other kid,” he said. “She can say mom or she can say mo-ooom.”

Niveyah plans to return to cheer next year. When asked what she thought about cheering, she had one thing to say: “Fun.”

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