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February 10, 2003

Hearing-impaired cheerleader lets nothing stand in her way

From: Elizabethtown News Enterprise, KY - 10 Feb 2003


Jamie Ortega stands amid a pack of cheerleaders Thursday in a crowded gym with her hands, balled into fists, resting on her hips. She and her Scott Middle School teammates, awaiting their cue, are there to root for their Bulldogs against T.K. Stone Middle School in a postseason middle school basketball tournament.

As fans jump up and down screaming for their team, Jamie and the rest of the squad work to match the intensity from the sidelines with their kicks, turns, stomps and cheers.

Late in the second half, reeling from 10 unanswered points by the Bulldogs, T.K. Stone calls a timeout. The Scott cheerleaders storm the floor, working the crowd.

The squad's spirit becomes infectious, as Scott supporters join in on chants of "SMS" and "Go, Bulldogs."

Jamie, a seventh-grader at the Fort Knox school, could see the excitement — the fans' hands clapping, people screaming. But she couldn't hear it.

Jamie is deaf.

"It's always been a dream of mine to cheer," she said through her interpreter. "I also wanted to show everyone that deaf people could cheer just as well as those who hear."

Adjusting to silence

Carmen Ortega, Jamie's mother, is not just a spectator at her daughter's games. She knows all the cheers and knows how to voice her pleasure over a good play or voice her displeasure over a bad one.

But her attention always focuses on her daughter. She wants her to succeed, despite her disability.

Like most games, Ortega was in the stands Thursday night at the middle school tournament watching her daughter perform.

In the small Stuart Pepper Middle School gym in Brandenburg, Jamie lined up with the rest of her nine teammates on the court's baseline and began with a cheer called "Fire it up" to get the Fort Knox contingent pumped. She stood on the outer right side of the squad so she could watch her interpreter, Peggy Brantley, and the rest of her teammates and keep in step with quick glances.

Jamie has been on the outside looking in since she was 2 weeks old.

A premature baby, Jamie developed a high fever shortly after birth and later meningitis that caused her to suffer ear damage.

"We spent many hours in the doctor's office early on in her life," her mother said.

Born in 1988 into a military family, Jamie, her parents and two siblings have traveled around the United States. Most recently, they spent time in Colorado Springs, Colo., before arriving at Fort Knox roughly five years ago.

Jamie has had tubes in her ears since she began preschool in California shortly after surgery. The tubes, which Jamie remembers getting, are designed to eliminate infections.

"One of Jamie's strengths is her memory," Ortega said. "She remembers everything."

Jamie also remembers learning sign language and coping with the early challenges of school life.

"I should be in the ninth grade, but I was held back," Jamie said, somewhat disappointed.

"She is right where she is supposed to be," her mother quickly countered.

Jamie's shadow

Brantley has been an interpreter for more than 10 years in several school districts around Kentucky. Three years ago, Fort Knox Community Schools placed her with Jamie. Brantley stays with her throughout the school day and at other school functions.

They meet at the school each morning and walk together to Jamie's first-period class.

"We have our scuffles from time to time, like she'll be day-dreaming in a class and I'll get on her for that," Brantley said. "But overall, she and I get along great."

Jamie has had an interpreter by her side since age 2. She caught on to sign language quickly and began to read lips as well. But since Jamie is in regular classes with students who are not disabled, it can be difficult when the teacher doesn't know sign language.

"There are times when teachers are talking too fast, and I have to ask them to hold on for a minute because Jamie doesn't understand something," Brantley said. "The teachers are very patient with us about that."

In preparation, Brantley will read the lessons ahead of time so she will know what is going on. She also does that with Jamie's cheers.

At basketball games, Brantley sits next to the coach and relays messages and instructions to Jamie. Brantley also cheers along with the girls in support of the Bulldogs.

"I have a lot of fun at the games, too," she said.

At Thursday's game, the gym turned out to be small, so Jamie was put in the center of the cheerleaders, next to captain Courtney Davis. That way, she could see Brantley and Wolff more easily.

Even though she was not in her usual spot, Jamie did well. Though she forgot a move on occasion, Jamie just laughed it off.

She even moved a teammate out of the way at the last minute to avoid contact with a basketball player.

"She's an intelligent girl who will help anyone," Brantley said.


Nobody at Scott questioned Jamie's ability to be a cheerleader at the beginning of the season.

"Scott encourages kids to do things, even if they are not as good as others," Brantley said. "They are more about raising children's self-esteem than winning."

But Jamie is a good cheerleader.

"She executes her moves really well," Wolff said. "And she is always smiling."

The only other time Jamie cheered before was at a camp two years ago. But she was determined to make the squad this year and show others that a disability is not an excuse.

Wolff never worried about a communication problem. She learned to sign the alphabet, and Jamie's mom and Brantley are always around to help.

The other cheerleaders are also fond of Jamie and try to help her when she needs it, which, they say, is rare.

"She gets the moves down like anyone else," said Stevi Phalen, captain for the eighth-grade cheerleading squad.

At times, cheering at a game can be daunting for Jamie. It is difficult for her to watch her coach, her interpreter and her teammates while trying to execute cheers. But she has memorized them and can catch up if she misses something.

She worries about making mistakes, but, in the long run, she just wants to have fun. And her coach and teammates want Jamie to have fun, too.

"The whole group has really come together to make sure Jamie knows what she is doing," Wolff said. "We are like a big family."

Moving on

As the buzzer sounded Thursday, many Fort Knox students joined the cheerleaders on the floor to celebrate their victory over T.K. Stone. Scott Middle will play at least one more game Tuesday.

As much as anyone, Jamie wants another chance to cheer. The game might be her last with the team if Scott loses.

Jamie's family is transferring to Fort Campbell later in the year.

Though she is used to traveling from city to city, it will be difficult to do it again because she's comfortable where she is, she said. But Carmen Ortega is confident her daughter will be able to handle the move.

"Jamie gets along with everyone," Ortega said. "And she loves to meet different people."

Though Jamie might be able to handle the transition easily, it will be more difficult for Brantley, who has grown attached to her over the past two years and will not accompany her.

"I will miss her very much," Brantley said. "Most of all, I will miss Jamie's spirit and her enthusiasm for life."

n Patrick Avery can be reached at 769-1200, Ext. 237, or e-mail him at

Copyright © 2003 The News-Enterprise