Wheelchair-bound Madame Ants cheerleader is part of the family

Courtesy photo
As part of the Madame Ants dance team, Breanna Doughman and her mother Kricket will perform at Sunday's home game. (Courtesy photo)

Because she’s lived with Rett Syndrome since she was 15 months old, Breanna Doughman is confined to a wheelchair, can’t speak and has limited movement and her communications skills are mostly through her sparkling eyes. She’s actually a beautiful person confined to a body which essentially doesn’t want her to do anything.

Her parents are another matter. Steve and Kricket Doughman have always been determined to find something to spark their daughter’s interest, anything that would allow her self-expression and a hint of joy. Then about eight years ago, Kricket was pushing her daughter past a New Haven Middle School cheerleaders practice when Breanna grabbed the wheels of her chair.

“She had never touched her wheels before,” Kricket said.

After her mother asked if Breanna could be allowed to simply watch practice, New Haven Athletic Director Dave Myers suggested she became an honorary squad member. She absolutely loved it!

“It took us a long time to find this,” her mother said. “With not having that communication, we tried to do typical things with her. She can’t tell us where she wants to go or what she wants to do, but she just loved this. Her personality showed through and her eyes lit up.”

Maybe it was the movement, the uniforms or the choreography — something caught and kept her attention. Breanna later joined the New Haven High School squad, and every year at parent-teacher conferences her parents were asked what their goals were for Breanna after graduation. After going to a few Mad Ants appearances, on Senior Night Kricket wrote that Breanna’s wanted to become an honorary Madame Ant.

That was three years ago, and now Breanna and Kricket are members of the team, and they’ll be cheering at 5 p.m. Sunday as the Mad Ants come home from a long road trip to take on Iowa. Maybe she can’t dance like her heroes, but Breanna is the one and only Madam Ants cheerleader. The Doughmans are not mascots, tokens or honorary anything, but full-fledged, regular team members. Heck, they are actually more than that.

“They are part of our family,” Mad Ants president Tim Bawmann said. “We like to include Breanna and Kricket in everything we do, Three Rivers Festival parade, watch parties or whatever.”

But Breanna brings even more than that to her teammates.

“I think she’s a great inspiration to our team,” said teammate Diana Mahathy who also went to New Haven. “She really encourages us to do better. If we’re in the middle of practice and we’re not moving, she’s making noises to tell us we need to get moving. She’s going to get pretty upset so we need to get things going. She keeps us on our toes.”

Breanna and Kricket’s relationship with the Madame Ants isn’t about what a girl confined to a wheelchair can’t do, but it’s all about what she can do with a little encouragement. Those with Rett Syndrome usually pass between the ages of 10 and 15, but Breanna’s neurologist believes her involvement with the Mad Ants has prolonged her life. It has certainly enhanced it.

During the two practice days per week, Breanna won’t nap, and afterward, she’s up most of the night because of the excitement. It’s even worse after games, and the whole family is saddened when the season ends, though she attends offseason Madame Ants appearances.

She’s got Fort Wayne Mad Ants covers on the wheels of her chair, pom poms and lights in her hair most nights. She dresses like her teammates, arrives two hours before gametime and loves handing out programs to incoming fans. She’s included in team pictures and in the game program.

“I think the new girls are curious at first, but once they get to know her they realize she’s such a great for our team,” Mahathy said. “Once they get to know her, they love her just as much as we do.”

Kricket is also a big part of the team, the “Fairy Squad Mother.” It’s a serious avocation, including bringing pregame snacks and a rolling bag that includes everything from pain reliever, eyelash glue, hairpins and even fabric shears. The girls haven’t been able to stump her yet. She’s even designing a wedding bouquet for one of the girls.

“I’m not the type of person who can just stand around and not do anything so I always have to be busy,” Kricket said.

She also videotapes every practice and helps Madame Ants coordinator Sheenah Johnson repair uniforms. Cheerleading is also pretty good incentive for encouraging Breanna’s studying and Turnstone workouts.

“Everywhere we go, she touches everybody’s lives in some way, shape or form,” her father said. “I don’t know how she does it but she does.”

During Breanna’s first year with the Madam Ants, the team’s special needs section was mostly empty, but now it’s mostly full, and she greets them all.

“What I think we’re doing is showing people in the community that it’s OK to get out and get involved,” Steve said. “It’s OK to bring your child or show people that life doesn’t stop because you have challenges.”

Whenever the Madame Ants dance on the court, Breanna and Kricket are under one of the baskets cheering them on. The Doughmans support their girls full-bore, though they are so thankful they receive many times more than all the effort they put in.

“The coolest part is how much Breanna is getting out of all this,” Kricket said. “That’s the true blessing, the real reward.”