TOWNSEND -- Participation, integration, education.

For North Middlesex Cheer Director Dawn Priest, these are the best ways to have kids grow up understanding and accepting their peers with special needs, and the Contender division of her cheering program, aims to exemplify them.

The Contenders is a new division of Patriots cheerleading that will open to special-needs participants aged 5 to 18 with mental and physical disabilities when it starts up for the 2012-2013 school year.

Priest, the mother of a 6-year-old special needs student, substitute teaches for her son's class and is a former cheerleader who began filling a coaching gap that left the NM cheering program flagging. Now serving as director, Priest has built up the program into a competitive group and the Contenders see her combining two central tenets of her life to better the district's offerings, she says.

"I am committed to building the Contender program, it's important to offer it for the future of our kids," Priest says.

Contenders will learn cheer basics and focus on teamwork, confidence building, fitness and fun.

It is open to all children in Central MA American Youth Cheer schools, including those in Greater Worcester, Nashoba Regional, Tyngsboro, Marlborough, Maynard, Littleton, Shrewsbury, Oxford/Webster and more.

The rarefied program is not only unique to the area, it's small nationwide.


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Priest said she learned about the Contenders last year at the AYC National Championship, but her inspiration to bring it to NM was the lack of representation at that event.

"Not a single squad," Priest said. "I was surprised, it seemed like an exciting opportunity to get kids involved in the program."

Although the specific details of the program will be learn-as-you-go, Priest said, she wants to begin getting feedback through conversations and questionnaires as early as she can.

Reluctance to sign up is a big challenge Priest forsees. As a parent, she said she could relate personally to special-needs extracurriculars that aren't one-on-one and therefore, family involvement will be a big part.

Furthermore, practices and performances will be tailored based on the severity of a cheerleader's condition.

"We need to identify children's strengths and weaknesses," she said. "With some, to walk up behind them can be traumatic, others are in wheelchairs."

However the program is designed, Priest said she wants to include "typical kids" with the Contenders.

"This is the society we live in, our future is being familiar with those challenges," she said. "If a child with Autism has a problem, people don't know how to react in, say, a grocery store."

Buddying up with other cheerleaders will not only help Contenders learn skills, Priest added, but will build those peer skills in a safe environment.

"My goal is to have them build self confidence and have fun, through participation I want them to feel really good about themselves," she said.

A press release regarding the Contenders said that the Central MA AYC is "extremely supportive of the new program."

"This is a great opportunity to get involved with a great program and the first of its kind here in Central Mass," said Tim Whitcomb, Vice President of Central MA Youth Football and Cheer Conference in the release. "I have asked presidents and cheer directors to get involved with this great initiative."

The program has also garnered praise from the National AYC office, according to Priest.

"I am very humbled by the support," she added. "I am a determined parent, I want to see this succeed and grow, my vision is to get it so big, that it has to be divided by town.

"And as for what's next, well, there is still no Contender football."

Any persons with questions regarding the Contenders are welcome to email Dawn Priest at Love2CheerNM@gmail.com.

Follow Luke at twitter.com/LSNashobaPub.