Reason to cheer

(This story originally appeared in The Anderson News, Sept. 15, 2017. Jerrica is still cheering for basketball now. Enjoy!)

Jerrica Drury’s family knew their lives would be in for major changes when she was less than 3 months old.

Now, it’s Jerrica’s efforts to be like any other teenager that are changing the lives of nearly everyone who comes in contact with her.

She’s played baseball since she was able. And this summer, after seeing an announcement on Facebook, Jerrica, an incoming freshman, let it be known that she wanted to be a cheerleader at Anderson County High School.

She’s been on the sidelines for two home football games, waving her red and white pom-poms and yelling for the Bearcats. And last Friday, Jerrica had to take a break from those duties to be part of the Anderson Homecoming court.

They are just two more steps in a journey that took a drastic and unexpected turn when Jerrica’s mom took her for a two-month checkup. “Her doctor was concerned about her head size,” says Jennifer Stephens, “so he sent her to a neurologist.”

That trip to the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Medical Center would become the defining moment for Jerrica and her family.

“We went to UK and didn’t know what to expect,” remembers Jerrica’s grandmother, Nancy Drury.

After the examinations and testing, the words were sobering.

Cerebral palsy.

“We cried for about two hours,” Ms. Drury remembers. “Then the nurse told us what to do and what we could expect.”

The reality of the condition would be that Jerrica would live her life with many limitations. She is largely confined to a motorized wheelchair and cannot walk on her own. She is challenged to communicate vocally.

Cheerleading? Dancing, jumping, performing backflips and handsprings? Actually yelling?

Most people would see no possible way.

It didn’t stop the determined 14-year-old.

“Jerrica saw that announcement and said she wanted to be one,” Ms. Drury smiles. “I think she even put it on Facebook that she wanted to be a cheerleader.”

Enter Angie Bragg.

A special education teacher at Anderson County, Bragg already knew Jerrica through her work with special needs students. She saw the Facebook post stating Jerrica’s desires and called to offer her help.

After Bragg consulted with school leaders and new cheer coach Chelsea Hartley, it was determined if Jerrica was that interested in being a cheerleader, the team would find a way to make it happen.

The last two weekends, Jerrica has joined her teammates on the sidelines, cheering her Bearcats on to a pair of victories. Right beside her has been Angie Bragg.

“She always has her pom pom in her hand,” says Hartley, who cheered at Anderson and at Eastern Kentucky University.

And like any good cheerleader, Jerrica is smiling. Always smiling.

Jerrica’s actual title is manager of the cheerleading team. She obviously is unable to fulfill the gymnastic requirements of the sport, but that doesn’t curb her enthusiasm. She attends practices and was part of a routine the cheerleaders performed at the Homecoming pep rally last Friday.

The plan is for Jerrica to join the cheerleaders at all home games.

Ask Jerrica what she likes most about being part of the team and she slowly types on her iPad, “Cheers.”

And she breaks into another huge smile.

Facebook technology brought Jerrica and the Bearcat cheerleading team together and a Dynavox app for that iPad has opened countless doors that were not there just a few years ago.

Jerrica makes her own Facebook posts. “She loves Facebook,” says her mother as she rolls her eyes.

It’s the typical 14-year-old’s life.

“So much has changed,” says Bragg, who has been working with special needs students for over 20 years. “When I first started, we would cut out pictures and the child would have to point at what they wanted or answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Technology has opened a whole world for students with speech issues.”

Bragg is limited by privacy laws as to what she can say specifically about Jerrica’s case and was speaking in generalities.

And Bragg is one of many who have had a part in Jerrica’s journey.

“Janis Logsdon was a teacher at the Early Childhood Center and told us about First Steps,” Drury says of an early intervention program for pre-school children with developmental disabilities. “Then she had Jerrica in her class.”

A former music teacher and band director, Drury is now retired but often works as a substitute teacher in the county school system.

“Every school has played such a role in developing Jerrica’s abilities,” she says.

When Jerrica was 6 years old, the school system was featured in a promotional film for Dell computers detailing the company’s technology that was helping her life.

But now, Jerrica might be playing an unforeseen role in helping others.

First, there was simply allowing Jerrica to be a part of the cheerleading team. In reality that might have been the easiest step in the process that led to her putting a cheerleader’s uniform.

“I was all for it,” says Hartley, “and Angie Bragg said she would be there with us.”

There were few qualms with the team.

“I was for it,” says team captain Taylor Ferry, a senior. “I know it is something good for her and it’s something she wanted to do.”

With those barriers removed, Jerrica has begun to impact people in unexpected ways.

“I sometimes struggle with my own confidence,” says Ferry. “For her to put herself out there like she is, it is very inspiring.”

Stephens says allowing Jerrica to participate can be both rewarding and challenging in its own way. “The first time she was down there, we wanted to be on the field with her,” Stephens says. “She’s happy to be on her own.”

Stephens, a single mom who also has a 13-year-old son, has taken a spot with her parents a few rows up in the bleachers directly in front of Jerrica during the Bearcats’ first two home games.

Most see the experience as good for Jerrica. Already gregarious as much as her body allows, she has much more socialization in her new venture.

And her teammates are blessed by seeing someone with special needs in a different light.

Ferry smiles, “I think it’s good for a lot of these girls.”

Jerrica, meanwhile, takes it in stride. She does her best to wave at well-wishers and tries to follow the lead of Bragg or the other cheerleaders.

“She had done this before in Upward,” Jerrica’s mom says of a faith-based basketball league formerly at First Baptist Church. “She was pretty determined to do this. She’s excited about it.”

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