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Challenged Child and Friends puts special-needs kids on the field
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Friends and family watch the Guppies flag football team and cheerleaders from Challenged Child and Friends on Saturday at Candler Field. - photo by Kristen Oliver

Pahel Shah is a cheerleader, but next year she wants to play for the football team.

Pahel, 3, has cerebral palsy. She is a student at Challenged Child and Friends and participates in the school’s Guppies enrichment program.

“Guppies is a program that’s been in the making for about 10 years,” said coordinator Shana Ramsey. “I wanted to start it back in the early 2000s, and we had an opportunity via one of our coordinators last year to start the program.”

The program allows students at Challenged Child and Friends, ages 3-5, to participate in flag football, cheerleading, T-ball and dance. Children of any physical or developmental stage from the school are allowed to participate.

Pahel’s mother, Poonam Shah, said her daughter couldn’t get that anywhere else.

“Because she has cerebral palsy, I’ve always been wondering, ‘Will she be able to do anything for herself?’ But they said she could do cheerleading,” Shah said. “I was thrilled. It’s also encouraging her to get better. When she comes home, she tries to move around and do the cheers, so it’s helping her like therapy.”

Ramsey said the purpose of the program is to provide children with special needs the opportunity to play a sport they may not be able to play again after they graduate from Challenged Child.

Robyn Shoaf, volunteer and marketing coordinator for the nonprofit preschool, said Guppies is “a family affair.”

Ramsey agreed, saying it provides an opportunity for the children to have fun while parents network.

“They see each other in passing but they don’t always have the opportunity to sit down and talk with each other,” she said. “This gives the parents an opportunity to come out and meet each other, get to know each other, develop play groups for their kids. I want it to be a family, fun atmosphere for kids and their families.”

The program serves both special needs and typically developing children. Ramsey said Guppies allows the children learn from each other.

“It gives them a chance to learn about their friends and see that they can still play and cheer with their pompoms,” she said.

Shoaf said teachers and staff members at Challenged Child and Friends all help run the program, as well as community partners, including Gainesville Parks and Recreation and Kohl’s in Flowery Branch.

“Kohl’s has come out and helped us with their Kohl’s Care program,” Shoaf said. “They’ve provided concessions and such, which is amazing. We’ve had great community support for this.”

Shah said the school and the Guppies program have helped Pahel come out of her shell and be less shy. She said her daughter wants to play football instead of cheerleading next year.

“When I put her in the walker, she wants to go after the ball,” Shah said. “It’s amazing.”

Ramsey said Guppies is “the true joy” of her work with Challenged Child and Friends.

“I’ve been here for over 18 years total, but this is the joy that I get, bringing families together so children can participate in and be a part of something,” she said.

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