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Their Moment to Shine

Featured Photo from Their Moment to Shine

Those with special needs find friendship, fun, and the chance to be superstars in Altamonte’s many recreation programs

Those with special needs find friendship, fun, and the chance to be superstars in Altamonte’s many recreation programs

Dressed in her royal blue and white Altamonte Sparklers cheerleading uniform, 15-year-old Altamonte resident Annamarie Nieves walks into the Lake Brantley South Gymnasium for the last dress rehearsal with her team. She shares giggles with friends standing next to her and gives loving hugs and high fives to her cheer coaches. With enthusiasm, Annamarie practices the motions to the team’s cheer and choreographed dance in preparation for the group’s final performance at a major cheerleading competition. Toward the end of practice, Annamarie asks her mother to take a video on her phone right before Annamarie’s coaches lift her high into the air and she holds her stunt. Her smile lights up the room, and so does her joy and confidence.

For that moment, and throughout her time inside the gym and with her team, the only thing “special” about Annamarie is… everything. And that’s what makes the Altamonte Sparklers and the City of Altamonte’s exceptional program for local teens and adults with special needs so, well, special.

Annamarie is one of many individuals with special needs who, thanks to the City of Altamonte’s Special Needs Recreation department, has the opportunity to learn how to cheer and dance and enjoy time with her friends in a friendly and                      encouraging environment.

“From cartwheels and splits to belly dancing techniques, she has learned so much,” says Annamarie’s mom, Ann, who has enrolled her daughter in Altamonte’s programs since the age of seven. “Activities like this help her to get out in public and perform in shows, but the organizers make sure she doesn’t feel too much pressure.”

Like many of the program’s participants, Annamarie thrives from the time she spends socializing with friends.
“She loves interacting with her friends. She has grown up with the kids in these programs,” says Ann.

The City of Altamonte Springs and the Advisory Board for the Disabled, Inc. work together to develop and run programs for those with developmental disabilities from across Central Florida. Participants don’t have to live in Altamonte to take advantage of the low-cost programs, which are designed to be fun and fulfilling. For families who need them, sponsorships and scholarships are available to offset the nominal fees. Social and recreational opportunities for those with special needs began back in the 1980s and have expanded to include activities such as bowling, Buddy Ball baseball, holiday activities, and              swim lessons.

In 2005, the department added dance training programs, featuring Sparklers cheerleading, belly dance, and ballroom dance, all which have received a tremendous response from the community and the families of participants.

Cheerleading remains one of the more popular programs, and even with about 80 available spots in the fall and spring, there’s almost always a waiting list.

Nin Iamaio, coordinator of the special needs recreational programs, says the cheer program and its end-of-season exhibitions at major national cheerleading competitions give participants a chance to do something they wouldn’t traditionally do.
“Our participants have cousins and siblings who are or have been cheerleaders – it’s cool to make this opportunity available to them, and important that they receive the same feeling of acceptance and recognition.”

Cheerleading is run by volunteer coaches who help develop choreography, teach it to the athletes, and help the cheerleaders perform the more difficult moves.

“It has been exciting to see athletes go up in stunting difficulty level,” says Nin. “They are growing as they participate in these programs. We encourage them to be independent and learn that skill.”

Similar to cheerleading is the raucously fun belly dance program, which started in 2007. The program practices year-round and prepares a show each October. Led by experienced belly dancing professionals and volunteers, participants enjoy learning new dances while becoming more confident and independent.

In 2009, the City partnered with USA Dance Central Florida to offer ballroom dance classes to the special-needs community. Through this relationship, USA Dance provides volunteers who also serve as teachers and dance partners. Each year, participants learn two different dance styles.

“Over the years, dancers can return and reinforce the skills they’ve learned,” says Nin. “Some have gotten really good at the tango and merengue!”

A culminating ballroom dance showcase occurs every spring, in which the dancers perform together as a group.
Whether it’s cheerleading or dancing, Nin says the opportunity to perform in front of an audience is a huge boost for the participants’ self-esteem.

“Our goal is for people in our community to always have these opportunities to make new friends, learn new skills, and demonstrate to the community at large what they’ve learned,” says Nin. “To improve is an added bonus, but as long as they’re having fun and developing their self-confidence, that is what’s most important to us.”

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