Shatorya Wright, “Tory” to her friends and family, isn’t much of a talker.
The 16-year-old is kinda shy, soft-spoken and a bit bashful, especially around strangers.
But when she puts on her Liberty High School cheerleader uniform, she is expressive, spirited and unafraid to get loud in a gym full of fans.
“She’s always wanted to cheer, but she wouldn’t come out of her shell,” explained her adoptive mother Jeanelle Leftwich, a member of the of the LHS athletic Hall of Fame who was a three-sport standout during her time at the school in the early 1980s. “Being autistic, she didn’t think she could do it.”
Leftwich credits Clark and the Minutemen cheer squad for playing a huge role in Wright realizing one of her biggest dreams. What began as a one-day celebration has transformed into a therapeutic experience for the sophomore and has helped her positively deal with her disorder.
“Last year we had our ‘Hooping for Heroes’ day (where) we take our special needs kids and let them play basketball, cheer and play sports they normally wouldn’t play,” Clark said. “We’re all about being inclusive. So, Tory tried it and she loved it. But it was just a one-game thing, so then this year, her mom was like, ‘I’d love for her to be a part of the team.’ We were like, ‘Sure, we have no problem with that.’ And she’s just like one of us.”
Cheerleading typically begins with tryouts around April and May and then practice throughout the summer to get ready for football season. Wright came onto the squad between football and basketball season and had a very small window to get up to speed and learn 20 to 30 cheers.
“She caught on like that (snaps fingers),” Clark said. “I think it’s because she loves it so much. … And the girls treat her like one of their own. We let her do what she can do and can’t do. If she decides to sit out, that’s fine.”
There are times when the raucous atmosphere of an exciting basketball game does overwhelm her. But she handles it.
“The only thing that kinda bothers her is on the court,” Clark said. “So, if we have harder things we do like a dance and a cheer, she’ll want to sit out because, socially, that’s where she kinda struggles a little bit.
“Otherwise, she’s a teenage girl, totally.”
Things haven’t always gone as smooth for Wright.
Leftwich, who has two grown children, became Tory’s caregiver when she was just four days old.
“Her mom left her with me and never did come back and get her,” Leftwich said. “She was drug-exposed, had ADHD, she had a lot going on.”
She struggled in her first years at public school. She would clash with teachers, throw desks and disrupt the classroom. Leftwich said she was called “almost every day” about an incident. A change was needed, so she took Tory out of public school and enrolled at Laurel Regional School in Lynchburg.
According to its website, Laurel provides classroom instruction for students who are severely and profoundly mentally or physically handicapped or autistic.
Leftwich saw an immediate change. She spent her fourth and fifth grade years at the school and returned the public school where there hasn’t been another incident.
“Once she went to Laurel, they did a 100% change in her.,” Leftwich said. “When she came back from there she never got a discipline referral, she’s never missed school. She’s never given me any problems. You would have thought she was a different person. She used to be on a lot of medications but now she is down to just two pills. Now, everything she does is positive, everything is nothing but excellent.”
Like other 16-year-olds, Leftwich said Wright likes to babysit and helps around the house with chores. But it’s cheerleading that is a passion.
“I like the excitement,” she said after Liberty’s first-round playoff win over Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago.
What got her interested in the sport?
“I watched a lot of videos on YouTube.”
She said she “might” cheer on the sidelines during football season, but admits to being “more of a basketball fan.”
She flashes a big smile when asked who has helped her the most in becoming a cheerleader.
“All of them, really,” she said with a laugh.
She was such an inspiration that she was named Most Valuable Cheerleader at the squad’s banquet last week.
“(Cheerleading) has made her a lot more confident,” Leftwich said. “Those cheerleaders are amazing. Adrian is amazing. And when I say they are amazing, they love her to death and she loves them to death.”