WALLINGFORD — Under swaying colored spotlights, the Wallingford Vikings cheerleaders trotted onto the red-matted stage.
Pom poms and signs were in hand, and they wore their purple, black and white uniforms with an uppercase W on the torso.
Missy Pallotta stood in the center as the spotlights dimmed and only the stage light illuminated the arena. Pallotta, then a 12-year-old sixth-grader, led the cheer that day at the 2017 American Youth Cheer national competition in Kissimmee, Florida.
The Vikings didn’t qualify to compete in that tournament. They went, specifically, to perform inspirational cheer for Pallotta, who has Down syndrome.
“I think that it really meant a lot to everyone who was on the team because Missy obviously means a lot to us,” said Olyvia Escobedo, a senior Lyman Hall cheerleader who performed with Pallotta in 2017. “It’s hard to put it into words sometimes, but it's really inspiring. It really helps because it can also help a lot of other kids.”
“They see, ‘Oh, Missy can do that,’” Escobedo added. “Everyone can do anything they want to do, and I think that was really special.”
Pallotta, now a 16-year-old sophomore cheerleader at Lyman Hall, grew up with three older siblings, so she always found herself on the sidelines watching their games and meets. However, she wanted to be more than a spectator. She wanted to participate.
So she did. In 2015, Sue and Tom Pallotta, Missy Pallotta’s parents, signed their daughter up for cheerleading as a fourth-grader.
“I also think, to her, it gives her some piece of normalcy because people would try and separate us because she has special needs compared to everyone else,” said Gabriella LaLuna, a senior Lyman Hall cheerleader. “But I think it just gives her the piece of normalcy to let her know that she is a high schooler and she still can be normal, like everyone else.”
Pallotta was a member of the Wallingford Vikings, cheering on the youth football teams for five straight years, which earned her the Ironman Award. She’d cheer at the Vikings’ football games in the fall and lead inspiration cheers at local, state, regional and even national competitions after the football season ended.
Inspirational cheer allows for people with special needs to be the focal point of a cheer routine. There are performances held at each level of competition, with the most noteworthy being nationals.
Now in her seventh year of cheering — five with the Vikings, two with Lyman Hall — Pallotta has formed strong friendships, notably with her best friend Nora Moran, a senior at Sheehan.
Moran, who said she wishes she could still cheer with Pallotta, invited her best friend to walk with her on Senior Night at Sheehan’s football game against Hartford Public on Nov. 12.
“I got to know her, but I (also) got to know her whole family,” Moran said. “I feel like I’m close with her whole family now, which is really nice. And she is my best friend.”
Other than Moran’s Senior Night, the two aren’t side by side at high school football or basketball games. They hang out, text and call each other often to stay in touch.
When the two first met, Moran said, Pallotta was more reserved. Now, she’s outgoing in addition to her already full-of-love and funny self.
At Lyman Hall, Pallotta’s personality and presence keep her fellow cheerleaders smiling.
“I think she brings a better atmosphere to the team because she’s just always happy,” LaLuna said. “Everyone might not be having the best day, but she just comes in and (says) hi to everyone, and it just makes everyone so happy that she’s here.”
For Sue and Tom Pallotta, it’s been heartwarming to watch their daughter be loved in all aspects of life.
They learned of the diagnosis before birth, which left some uncertainty on how Missy’s life would be affected.
Sue Pallotta, who is a nurse, said many children with Down syndrome can have heart defects. Missy ultimately didn’t have any, but she was rushed to the UConn Medical Center on her first day of life for a complete blood transfusion.
She remained there in the neonatal intensive care unit for the first couple weeks of her life.
She also had a cleft palate. Her parents had to feed baby formula one tiny droplet at a time until she learned how to swallow.
At 10 months, Pallotta had major surgery to repair the cleft palate.
“She really showed us (how much of) a fighter she was,” Sue Pallotta said.
Missy has had many different medical and dental treatments, Sue Pallotta said. She has some trouble verbalizing, so her parents help her express her thoughts.
But Missy is fully cognitive. Tom Pallotta referred to her as a “smart cookie.”
“It’s just sometimes, verbally, it’s hard for her to explain what she’s saying mentally in her head,” Tom said. “But she gets it across to you. It just takes a little longer.”
“She knows everything that’s going on, believe me. She knows how to use an iPhone pretty well,” he added. “It’s funny, because I’ll be using her phone to try to help her with something and then she’ll just whip it from me because she knows I’m taking longer to do what she wants me to do, and she’ll just finish it.”
Tom Pallotta recognized the difficulties early in his daughter’s life and the uphill road that lay ahead. Seeing how far she’s come since then has made both parents proud. They refer to themselves as “Missy Pallotta’s biggest fans.”
“We just are amazed by her because she always rises up to every challenge,” Sue said. “She learns the routines; she learns the cheers. She gets lifted and hoisted into the air, and she just always, always goes past our expectations.”
“She really is just amazing, and it’s because of people around her. They just always encourage her. They’re always accepting of her; they’re always kind to her. It’s just been an amazing, amazing experience.”
While Sue Pallotta said her daughter fits in beautifully with everyone, she initially had concerns.
For many parents of a child with special needs, there can be worries of how well they will adapt in different settings. Sue didn’t know what to expect when she’d sign her daughter up for different activities.
Tom Pallotta, on the other hand, said his daughter’s fitting in never crossed his mind. He credited how inclusive the world is today and knew there would be opportunities for her to be a part of.
His thinking was correct. Missy fit in everywhere.
“There’s never been a situation where we were let down by people,” Sue Pallotta said. “They’ve always been accepting, kind, loving. They went out of their way to include her.”
While Missy often reps her Lyman Hall cheer uniform, she’s involved in a number of other extracurricular activities as well. She dances at Renee’s School of Dance. She participates in the Best Buddies and Unified Sports programs at Lyman Hall.
She’s also played basketball, track and softball at the Special Olympics in Seaside Saybrook. She ran the 50-yard and 100-yard dashes as well as a relay race.
But a large chunk of her time is spent with pom poms in hand, facing the crowd to perform a cheer routine as the Lyman Hall football or basketball team plays. It requires practice once or twice per week with coach Morgan Worthy.
Worthy has known Missy Pallotta since 2016, coaching her on the Vikings and now with the Trojans. Worthy mentioned how much she enjoys coaching Pallotta, but also how quickly she learns.
“Missy actually picks up the routines and cheers very quickly and actually helps the others remember where to go and what to do,” Worthy said. “Despite her limited verbal skills, she does perform all of the cheers and can communicate her needs to us very effectively. If anyone can remember a cheer or dance, it’s her.”
It’s not just remembering and helping others with the routines, however. Worthy said Pallotta is an inspiration for anyone.
Whether she’s on the red mat in Kissimmee, the turf at Fitzgerald Field or just hanging out with friends, Missy Pallotta brings a positive attitude. The people around her notice and enjoy it.
“We just couldn’t be more proud of her,” Sue Pallotta said. “She is just a light in our lives. She is a positive, happy person. She truly teaches us to be happy, like every day. She shows us happiness every day, and it’s just infectious. She truly brightens your day.”