Caitlyn Barber is a teenager with the mental capacity of a 5-year-old and an obsessive compulsive disorder severe enough to make life hell.
But right now it’s heaven.
Krystina Hennessey is a 15-year-old who will never be able to read or write and is presently standing beside Caitlyn on a box one foot above the ground.
She’s never been so elevated.
The two best friends are draped in their cheerleading uniforms at the Rancho Buena Vista junior varsity football game — chanting and dancing and clapping in hopes of firing up the crowd. It’s working, too. Most of the fans are cheering.
The rest of them are crying.
“She’s a normal kid out there,” said Caitlyn’s mother, Faygene Barber, looking on from the RBV bleachers last Friday. “That’s what’s so awesome about this.”
Faygene and her husband Jeff have spent the past 14 years raising a daughter that “normal” always seemed to elude. Intellectually disabled with tantrum-inducing OCD, Caitlyn grew up screaming uncontrollably and unpredictably while struggling with the simplest of tasks.
Her most consistent form of self-expression occurred when she would return from school enraged and throw objects across the house. But there was another part of her — despite the shyness, reticence and other evidence to the contrary — there was another part of her that was just dying to perform.
Jeff and Faygene caught glimpses of this when Caitlyn would belt out Justin Bieber songs from her bedroom, but they never imagined she’d want to entertain an audience. Then, two summers ago, Krystina’s grandmother convinced Faygene to sign Caitlyn up with the Palomar Stars, a “challenger” cheer squad that supports a special-needs football team of the same name.
Catilyn was brought into this world on November 15, 1998 – but it wasn’t until that first cheer practice that a star was born.
Out of nowhere, the girl who couldn’t tell you what 1+0 was if you showed her 50 times was memorizing entire routines. Caitlyn Barber, whose bashfulness generally prevents her from making eye-contact with strangers, was blowing kisses to the crowd.
This wasn’t merely a liberation — this was a transformation — as Faygene confessed that Caitlyn “is a different kid” when she cheers. So Mom did what any good parent would do — she sought more of what her child needed.
With Caitlyn set to begin her freshman year in Rancho Buena Vista’s special-needs program, Faygene approached RBV cheer coach Lynn Vaughn last spring about including her daughter and Krystina on the team. We’re talking the “normal” cheer squad here, because as Caitlyn’s former teacher Glynis Uhren said, despite their inability to articulate it, special-needs kids crave acceptance from their peers as much as anybody else.
The problem was, incorporating mentally disabled students would likely disrupt the synchronicity that cheerleaders work so diligently to perfect. Didn’t matter to Vaughn. Her instant reply was “yes, yes yes!”
Not wanting to cut anybody for Caitlyn and Krystina’s sake, Vaughn added the pair to the junior varsity as “honorary cheerleaders.” Since then, every day has been Bliss Boom Bah.
When Caitlyn first got her cheerleading uniform, she wore it for 48 hours straight. When she saw that she had her own box at a football scrimmage last month, she declined to join her teammates for a pre-game bathroom break because she didn’t want to step off it.
But the moment that most touched Faygene came over the summer, when sophomore cheerleader Jacky Colon gathered the team and casually invited them to lunch.
“It was the first time Caitlyn had been invited anywhere,” Faygene said.
Krystina, meanwhile, is slower than Caitlyn physically and mentally, and you’re not going to see her keep up with the cheers or beam with the same radiance. But if you want proof as to what this means to her, take last month, when a teacher asked “what’s one thing you’ve never seen before?” and Krystina, whose first a game as a cheerleader was approaching, said “standing on the field, looking at the crowd.”
“I just thought for her to come up with that was amazing,” said Krystina’s grandmother, Karen Knowles.
The only thing better than the way Caitlyn and Krystina have responded to cheerleading is the way that their teammates have responded to them. They’ll laugh together between cheers. They’ll repeat a routine so that Krystina’s grandma can get it on video. They even know Caitlyn’s crushes.
What do you like about cheerleading, Caitlyn?
JV cheer captain Liberty Heffernan calls Caitlyn and Krystina her sisters. She said that she “almost cried” when they made the team because it was so cool, and that the two are “a bundle of joy” that are “impossible to be mad around.”
This rings true for spectators, too.
So go to a JV football game at RBV one day. See Krystina shake her pompoms. See Caitlyn shout “It’s touch-down time! We’re movin’ movin’ right down the line!” See joy that simply wouldn’t exist without wonderful adults and teenagers alike.
The only sad part will come when the fourth quarter ends and the girls have to step down from their boxes.
But don’t worry – it’ll be a while longer till their feet touch the ground.