- Alma School District
By Kevin Taylor, Alma Schools
ALMA — Not unlike hundreds of 8-year-olds before her, Cashmere Albright couldn’t wait to shake her poms and cheer for her little league football team as a fourth-grader.
As she grew older, and wiser, Albright was eager to see where the sport would take her.
Then one day, it happened.
“I tried out for cheer when I was in the eighth grade and I made it — I was so happy,” beams Albright, a senior. “I was really surprised, because I didn’t think I would make it.”
There is plenty of pageantry surrounding high school football games — cheerleaders, pep squads, football players and passionate students cheering from the bleachers — bits and pieces of Americana immortalized in Don McLean's 1971 hit song, “American Pie.”
Even during the uncertain times of a world-wide pandemic, high school football games are an important social event — face coverings and all.
But imagine taking all that in without hearing a word — no “go team,” ‘Touchdown Airedales!” or the school fight song?
Cashmere Nicole Albright is deaf. She reads lips, which hasn’t been an easy thing to do in the masked-up world we refer to as COVID-19 but is in a far better place than she was when Jerry Martin intervened 14 years ago.
“When we got her at 4, she had no communication skills whatsoever,” Martin said. “There was a lot of grunting and it was a struggle. She knew two signs — yes and no.”
Albright struggled with simple necessities, such as asking to go to the bathroom or being able to tell someone she was hungry.
Cashmere came into their lives not long after she was placed in foster care. He’s had her (Martin has since remarried Leslie Martin) for the past 14 years.
The Martins have kept things as simple as possible while trying to understand the logistics of raising a deaf teenager. Like most parents and guardians, there were ups and downs.
"I never coddled her; I expect the same from her as anyone else,” Martin said. “I wanted her to learn to fend for herself. And trust me, she does just fine.”
“He (Martin) takes care of me like any other kid that’s not deaf,” Albright said. “He expects the same from me.”
Martin initially sought to enroll Albright into the Arkansas School for the Deaf, a prestigious school with roots dating back to the 1850s. But Martin had a change of heart.
“We were going to put Cash in a school for the deaf, where she's with her own kind — but she’s with her own kind (here), the kids she’s grown up with,” he said.
“I’m glad I went to regular school because everything was always fun to be around,” Albright said.
In addition to Jerry and Leslie Martin, Albright’s world also includes Martin’s mom, Dana Zellmer, who has also been a presence in her life for the last decade-and-a-half.
Not being “coddled” meant learning to drive, too. It was initially a struggle, but Albright passed her driving test on her fourth attempt.
Alma principal Brian Kirkendoll has had a front-row seat while watching Albright prosper between middle school years to high school.
“My relationship has been a little different because she’s always been around my daughter (fellow cheerleader Ansley Kirkendoll),” Kirkendoll said. “Growing up, Jerry always wanted her to be part of stuff. The fact that she’s been able to overcome so much is amazing.
“Not being able to hear the music and the beat and still do things with cheer, she’s overcome a lot.”
Friday Night Lights
Albright transformed into her cheer outfit, her hair pulled back with a pretty green ribbon. There are smiles, poms and football players to root for.
Friday Night Lights for the Alma Airedales is a perk, not a given.
To be part of it is special.
“Cashmere was non verbal for the first several years of her life,” Alma cheer coach Christy Law said. “Most people that watch her have no idea that she has this disability. (But) she is always able to stay on beat, is an incredible back spot in stunts, and tumbles extremely well.”
"She (Law) means everything to me," Albright said. "She helps me with everything I do."
Learning to cheer, and later dance, helped Albright progress. But there were struggles.
“She had a huge desire to cheer when she was young, (but) it was a struggle because her communication skills were terrible,” Martin said. “We would get the cheers in writing so she could practice them.”
When she was 4, and just coming into Martin’s world on a full-time basis, Albright was taught sign language.
Her speech, however, lacked the basic skills of kids half her age.
“I really didn't have any hope she would be verbal," Martin said. “That's how far behind she was with the process. She was an angry little girl at 4 years old.”
“She’s had every reason to quit things, but she didn’t,” Kirkendoll said. “I think a lot of that came from home, the way Jerry and his wife raised her.
“They’ve supported her and given her things she probably wouldn’t have had.”
Long before she was named to the cheer squad as a middle schooler, Albright and other aspiring dance and cheerleaders gathered on the track at Alma Intermediate School cheering for future Airedales with team names such as the Colts, Packers, Jets and Steelers.
Cheer began to tug at her heartstrings.
“She was really fearless,” Martin said. "We would take her to little league games.”
From there, she sought out gymnastics classes.
“I started taking her to Flame Gymnastics,” Martin said. “I’d get off from work and drive her to Fort Smith; we were there for several years. For her size, and being tall, she was the best tumbler on the squad.”
“I started tumbling in Fort Smith,” Albright said. “Going into the eighth grade, I made the cheer team. I was really happy!”
Albright credits former Alma aide Kenra Newton with helping her fit in. “She’s a big part of my life,” Albright said.
“All kids can be successful no matter what their disabilities,” Law said. “As far as Cashmere and cheer, specifically, I have never had another hearing impaired cheerleader on my team. She is unique in that regard. Our sport involves responding to sound, whether it be voices, music, precision of movement.
“Cheer is very dependent on your ability to hear in order to keep in sync with the team. Cashmere has overcome her hearing impairment to be a very successful cheerleader. I’m so proud of her and her determination to always be her best.”