Beaufort High student overcomes cerebral palsy to become cheerleader + video

loberle@islandpacket.comDecember 29, 2013 

During a cheer practice this past fall, cheerleader McKeil Patterson had the Beaufort High School squad called together.

She had something to tell them.

The team was unfocused and disorganized -- each girl distracted by school or friends or fatigue. They were practicing their lifts -- moves called stunting. A single mistake could result in serious injury.

"It was getting loud, and you're supposed to keep quiet when you're stunting for safety reasons," the team's coach, Kathy Ingram, said.

Patterson joined the squad in August, fulfilling her life-long dream of being a cheerleader. The 16-year-old was born with cerebral palsy and is bound to a power-wheelchair. To become a cheerleader, she had to spend hours in therapy each week just to be able to lift her hands above her head.

She saw her teammates slacking off and not giving it their all. She called over Jaylyn Washington, a senior captain, and said, "There are a lot of people falling. They're not being serious. Tell them to get their heads in the game and give 100 percent."

Ingram had already ordered some of the girls to do push-ups as punishment. She walked over to Patterson and said, "You've never had to see Coach get cross, but you're about to see me in action."

"That's when (Patterson) said she'd like to talk to them," Ingram said.

So the coach called the team together, and Patterson told them they had to get serious. They needed to be careful. They had to try harder.

Then Patterson told them something else.

"I was in bad foster homes, and I was abused for a very long time, three years," she said. "I had two broken hips, sores all over my body, I only weighed 88 pounds, and I was just hanging on for dear life."

"I didn't give up.

"When I go to therapy I give 100 percent. It might be hard, but I give 100 percent every time. It might hurt, but I give 100 percent.

"Today, you could never tell I was 88 pounds."

The speech put things into perspective and moved junior Kari Workman to tears.

"McKeil represents everything good about cheerleading," she said. "Everything that cheerleading was made for, what it's supposed to be, that's McKeil."


The first time Lisa Johnson, an occupational therapist at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, worked with Patterson, she was covering for another therapist.

"After that, I wanted to get her on my schedule," Johnson said. "She is the most fun, and the most inspiring patient."

Patterson shared with Johnson and Kristen Ferguson, her physical therapist, her dream of being a cheerleader. She had lived her whole life being told what she would never be able to do, but she knew better.

Ferguson's husband, Josh Ferguson, a trainer at Beaufort High School, connected them with Ingram, who was excited by the idea of Patterson joining the squad.

When Patterson's physical therapists came to her first football game, they were amazed.

"We didn't really know what McKeil was capable of until that game," Ferguson said.

They had most recently been working with Patterson on just being able to hold her head up straight for longer periods of time.

"Sometimes she can only get her arms to her face," Ferguson said. "But when there's pom poms involved, it's a whole different story."

Patterson said that cheerleading pushes her further in therapy than she could on her own.

"I didn't know I could lift my arms that high," she said. "They're always down, but once I get on the track, they're always up. My head is always up and always smiling."


During halftime of one football game, Patterson looked to Ingram and said, "I just don't think I'm giving it my all. I don't feel like I have enough energy."

Ingram smacked her hands together and told her, "Then get some energy! You've got to get out there and find it!"

"I treat her like the other cheerleaders. I push her like I do the other cheerleaders," Ingram said.

"It's why she loves you so much," Washington says to Ingram. "I think that's the best feeling for anybody who's been treated like anything less all their lives."

And Patterson appreciates that.

"They make me feel proud, like I'm not just a person in a wheelchair," she said. "They see me in a different way. They see me as this girl who can do anything."

They look past Patterson's wheelchair, past what she can't do, and see someone who goes after her dreams.

"Mrs. Ingram said McKeil looks at me like I'm some cheer goddess or whatever," captain Jaylyn Washington said. "But I'm honored to even know her. There's nobody like her in my life."


In January, Patterson will move to Charleston.

"There has been a family member who has stepped up to the plate and who has wanted to adopt me," Patterson said. "I had to make a choice. ... It was very tough but I've been gone from my family for over nine years. I think it's time for us to be united."

She is sad to leave the girls on the cheer team, sad to leave her therapists and her foster mom, Jennie Brown, whom she says saved her life.

But her experiences in Beaufort have shaped and redirected her life, and becoming a cheerleader has shown that she shouldn't be afraid to go after what she wants in life.

"It has inspired me to achieve other dreams, like one day becoming a fashion designer," Patterson said. "Just because I'm in a wheelchair doesn't mean that I can't be a fashion designer. I can be."

She leaves behind a legacy at Beaufort High, having given the team a new target, striving always to go full throttle.

"She's changed us 10 times more than we ever expected her to," junior Tori Settlemire said. "She makes us feel like in everything we do, we need to give it 100 percent."

Video: McKeil Patterson, her coach and her physical therapist discuss her dream of being a cheerleader

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