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Cheerleader battles Type 1 diabetes

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Eleven-year-old Ashley Sturgeon bounded across the mat during an Xtreme Motion cheerleading practice, her brown hair bouncing in a ponytail as she twisted her straight pretzel of a body into a back handspring.

How she would land was anyone’s guess, although having been given the proper instruction, it was likely she would land on two feet.

Seven years ago, Sturgeon also was launched into the unknown when she diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Although the nature of the disease and its repercussions can be overwhelming, it is somewhat like a flip. She will do the best she can to prepare and, hopefully, will land safely.

Christa Sturgeon leaned against a wall of the make-shift gymnasium just off Central Avenue, intently watching her daughter’s workout. While Ashley’s Sturgeon’s teammates seem mostly unconcerned or unaware she faces certain medical challenges, her mom knew her blood sugar levels could change, causing concern or even a dangerous situation.

It’s just the world the mother and daughter inhabit, where the journey is taken one careful step at a time.

But even as Ashley pushes forward, proving she can do anything her peers can do, the reality is that her disease, which has no cure, has placed limits on her body that must be respected.

“When I left the hospital the day we found out, I came back home and cried,” Christa Sturgeon said. “She was 4. What if I mess up? What if I don’t remember something? I can’t do this.”

Having no fear was out of the question. Sturgeon was going to attach herself to her daughter’s every move. When Ashley entered Richards Elementary School, her mom came along as a package deal.

“I was at school every day,” Sturgeon said. “The nurse (Kathy Smith) at Richards was wonderful, and she told me to back off. I started backing off when Ashley was in the fourth grade.”

Richards assigned a teacher’s aide to help Ashley with her needs and that helped her mom relax. Also, Ashley, now in fifth grade, received an insulin pump about a year ago.

“Before the pump, she had to take five shots a day,” her mother said. “The pump gives her more freedom, and she can pretty much eat whatever she wants.”

It also helped that Ashley started attending Camp John Warvel in North Webster. Run by the American Diabetes Association, the camp serves children ages 7 to 15 who have diabetes.

“Often times, the parents are hesitant to allow them to go to their grandparents’ house let alone a camp,” said Carol Dixon, the senior manager of mission delivery for the ADA’s Indiana Area. “They are doing physical activities under the hot sun, and they have to learn a whole different management technique. These are YMCA facilities, so there is rock climbing, kayaking, swimming, canoeing and volleyball.

“Some of them have been sheltered. I remember that Ashley was a little shy about camp.”

That shyness began to fade.

“We try to improve the lives of the people affected while the search goes on for a cure,” Dixon said. “We know that a child like Ashley might be the only one in her school with Type 1 diabetes. Her classmates don’t know what is going on. I make a lot of trips to schools to explain. Education is so important.”

Dixon recalled a story she heard from Ashley’s mom that one of her classes had a birthday party, and Ashley wasn’t able to participate. It was all well-intentioned because the concern was for Ashley’s health, yet misinformed.

That situation has been the exception, though.

“Safety always is our No. 1 priority,” Richards Principal Darin Sprong said. “We tell our parents two things. One, we want their child to learn, but first, we want them to be safe.”

Sprong said he quickly got to know Ashley and her mom.

“The nurse’s office is right next to our office,” Sprong said. “Ashley is a delightful, young lady. She always has a smile on her face, and she takes on each day in a positive manner.

“And we know that Christa has to be an advocate for her daughter. You do what you need to do.”

As Christa Sturgeon started to “back off,” Ashley started to try more rigorous activities. She tried ice skating and swimming. She has been taking ballet lessons.

And when she entered fifth grade, she thought she would attempt to make the Richards cheerleading squad.

“The other coaches met with the nurse,” said Shawna Perry, who at the time was one of Richards’ cheerleading coaches. “I didn’t have a lot of concerns. Ashley is amazing, especially her personality and her attitude. She is willing to try anything and to put in the extra work.”

Christa Sturgeon saw her daughter begin to bloom.

“There is a tremendous difference in her since she got on the cheerleading team,” Sturgeon said. “Other than the pump, she is the same as everyone else.”

She is not exactly the same, but Richards tries to make things as close as possible.

“Athletics are a carryover from what we do at the school everyday,” Sprong said. “We do put things into place to make sure all our kids are safe. In Ashley’s case, we have worked closely with her mom and the school nurse. We have had conversations with Ashley’s cheer coach. If Ashley numbers are not right, we have to put safety first.

“Ashley has a 504 individual education plan. Every adult who works with her meets to discuss what we need to do to help. Every school has that kind of plan in place to help kids who face a medical challenge. We don’t want to single anyone out; but behind the scenes, we want to make sure their needs are being met. And when you watch Ashley do the kinds of things that she does, you smile. It’s pretty cool.”

Although Ashley missed cheering at a couple of the school’s basketball games due to her numbers being off, she grew in confidence that she could tackle athletic challenges.

She decided she wanted to try out for the Xtreme Motion squad.

“We held a three-day tryout, and we divided them up into skill levels,” said Brittany Carpenter, who is the Xtreme Motion coach. “Ashley smiled the entire three days.”

Carpenter placed Ashley on the intermediate squad, which will perform five to seven competitions a year in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana.

“It takes extreme dedication and a lot of time and effort,” Carpenter said. “This will be the first time we will have a girl on one of our competitive teams with a pump. But we know what the limitations are. I will keep asking her, ‘Are you OK?’”

Ashley will hear something else as well from Carpenter.

“You can do it!”

Although Christa Sturgeon won’t be attending the practices (parents are asked not to stay), she will be a little nervous during competitions where her daughter will be doing acrobatics as well as being tossed around in formations.

“This is my first, ‘Oh my God!’ type of thing,” Sturgeon said. “I was scared to death to see her flipping. I might bite my tongue off.”

She knows she will manage though, and her daughter is unafraid.

“It’s fun to do the tricks,” Ashley said with her smile, as always, beaming.

“It is such a roller-coaster ride,” Sturgeon said. “But she has so much support out there. It’s just going to be a bumpy ride.”

So it goes, with Sturgeon keeping her eye on Ashley as she heads into the unknown.

“She is my whole world,” Sturgeon said, her eyes fixed on her daughter as she performs another stunt on the mat. “When she is 50, she will be my whole world. I hope and pray they will find a cure.”

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