EAGAN, Minn. – Seven months ago, Kathryn's parents weren't sure that she would ever be able to sit up on her own again.
On Tuesday night, however, the 9-year-old danced her heart out at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
Kathryn, or "Kate the Great," as she's known by those close to her, was born with a rare genetic condition called Pfeiffer syndrome, Type 2, which affects about one in every 200,000 children. Kate was born with a birth defect called a cloverleaf skull, characterized by deformities of her head and face.
Kate has been under anesthesia 102 times, has had more than 27 surgeries just on her skull, and is hearing-impaired.
"Otherwise, she's a normal, 9-year-old little girl who loves dance and cheer and football and wrestling – really, all sports," said Kate's mother, Stacy McAllister. "She's pretty sassy. She's got a lot of sass and spunk, and she definitely has a fighting spirit. She just keeps chugging along, and she doesn't let much bring her down. We've always pushed her to do whatever she can, as much as she can."
Most recently, that meant participating in the Minnesota Vikings Cheerleaders inaugural Special Stars Cheer Team clinic.
During the unique program, 29 young ladies with cognitive or physical special needs were paired with a "cheer sister" from the MVC team. The participants, who ranged from age 6 to 24, had the opportunity to learn a cheer and a dance that they performed for their families at the end of the evening. They also had a chance to watch the MVC team perform one of their game-day dances.
"Here's my daughter with the opportunity to be like every other little girl and just be 'normal' – to cheer and have fun and be a part of something where she's not singled out, she doesn't feel different, and she's included," Stacy said emotionally. "I love the idea of having a cheer sister and this person who can help guide her through what they're doing today so that she doesn't feel like she's alone or isolated. I just think it's an amazing opportunity for her."
While each of the girls received 1-on-1 attention and coaching from their cheer sister, the group as a whole was directed by MVC members Andrea and Sydney.
Andrea currently works with students in kindergarten through second grade who struggle with learning disabilities and was thrilled about the opportunity to help lead the Special Stars.
"Individually, they all have their own personalities. It's been so fun to get to know them and, honestly, just to see their drive," Andrea said. "We had girls in wheelchairs, girls with feeding tubes, and just to see that [those things] didn't stop them … they were just rocking it out there."
Sydney serves as an LTP (Learn, Talk, Play) teacher for children on the autism spectrum. Having twin cousins who both are autistic, Sydney is especially drawn toward working with young people who have special needs.
"When they all came tonight, they were just so excited," Sydney reflected of the event. "They just filled you with joy because they were so excited to meet you and greet you – they just wanted to [spend time with] you.
"This touched my heart," Sydney added.
The Special Stars clinic was a year in the making, and the concept was inspired long before that.
Tami Hedrick, Director of Women's Initiatives and MVC Head Coach, has been a dance teacher for many years and remembers seeing studios or programs that had divisions for dancers with disabilities. When she joined the Vikings, she hoped to one day implement a similar program.
Hedrick emphasized that the Vikings organization is focused on inclusion and has added features to U.S. Bank Stadium to support that focus, such as the mothers' room that opened this season, and the Special Stars program is an additional way to reach out and support members of the community.
"I'm just really passionate about doing this, and I wanted to make sure we did it right," Hedrick said. "We wanted it to be intimate, where every cheerleader got a cheer sister, and that way it felt like a special day just for them.
"Just like we often see with Junior Cheer … the young girls see [the MVC] as role models, yet the MVC oftentimes walk away from our experiences like this being impacted so much themselves," Hedrick added. "They see that by being an ambassador in the community, you can really make a difference for people and make an impact on their lives."
Special Stars came together with the help of the Pageant of Hope, an organization that Hedrick and the MVC have partnered with for a number of years now.
Founded in 2009 by sisters Lisa Maslowski and Lynn Grosse, Pageant of Hope is a year-long program for young women with special needs that culminates with a pageant.
Lisa, Lynn and other members of Pageant of Hope were on-hand Tuesday evening to assist with Special Stars, which featured many of the same participants.
"All of them are so excited and honored that they're able to meet such special people that they look up to and [typically] only see on the TV," said Lynn. "Many of them haven't been given the chance to be able to participate in other things, [so this is a wonderful experience].
Lisa said it meant a lot to see the event come together after so much planning and collaboration.
"Kids that don't have disabilities have a lot of environments where they can shine, whether it be sports or education or art, so it's always really fun to give girls with special needs … an outlet where they can shine on their own and something that builds their self-esteem," Lisa said. "They become so independent by doing simple things. It's just a really good thing, all the way around."
One of the Special Stars in particular, 23-year-old Julia, didn't stop smiling the entire evening.
A self-proclaimed lifelong Vikings fan, Julia took it upon herself to lead the group in the SKOL Chant and later raved about her favorite team.
"I've been watching Stefon Diggs, and I've been watching our new quarterback, Kirk Cousins!" Julia exclaimed, pumping her fist in the air. "I would say those guys rock at everything. I hope we get to go to the Super Bowl this year."
Julia described the Special Stars clinic as "phenomenal" and called her MVC cheer sister, Whitney, an "excellent, excellent" teacher.
"I actually nailed the dance," Julia said proudly.
She called it a dream come true to be inside the Vikings practice facility.
"I've always wanted to be here, and I've always wanted to meet one of the cheerleaders. Next year I'll be back, and I'll be a second-year vet," Julia said. "Being here gives everybody a fair playing [field]. The MVC don't judge us on how we perform. The Vikings are awesome to us."