8-year-old with special needs joins UB gymnastics team
It's a big weekend for the University of Bridgeport as the school hosts the USA Gymnastics National Collegiate Championships. And regardless of how the Purple Knights do at Nationals, it's already been a season to remember.
"We are graduating one of our most talented groups of seniors that we've had in many, many years," UB Gymnastics Assistant Coach Becky Ferraro says.
But it's the team's youngest member who's the heart of the program—8-year-old Amber Lehrman.
"She is our purpose," Ferraro says.
Amber was born with Down syndrome. "She also has a hole in her heart," her mom Melody Lehrman explains. "She happens to have hypothyroidism. She has a lot of issues with auditory processing."
Lehrman never expected Amber to be drafted into the college ranks. And it's a nonprofit organization called Team IMPACT that brought her daughter and the Purple Knights together. The group connects college athletes with kids who have serious or chronic illnesses.
"They basically get signed on to the team and they become part of the team, and now they'll actually know what the feeling is like to be on the team and like really be fully included in every aspect," Melody says.
For Amber, that includes attending practices. "She has a locker in our locker room for her things when she comes to visit," UB Gymnast Brienna Zine says.
And sometimes she even leads practices. "She's honestly just this ball of sunshine that we love. We adore her," Javinett tells News 12.
"It's definitely like having a little sister because she just is everywhere and wants us to do everything with her and to do what I do, let's see what you can do. So it's like a little shadow and it's awesome and we love it," Zine says.
The team says every time they compete, Amber is in the back of their heads. She's also right by their sides at meets cheering them on.
"She used to be a little bit insecure and a little more shy with people," Lehrman says. "And she has blossomed into this very confident little girl now."
"We have girls that have been with Amber for the last few months and are thinking, maybe I want to go into education, maybe I want to do something with kids who have needs like Amber," Ferraro says. "And it's life-changing."
It's life-changing too for a little girl. Thanks to a special bond, she found the bravery to perform at the last home meet, vaulting into the crowd's hearts like she did her team's.
"My eyes were all wet with tears because I was so proud of her for being able to do that," Lehrman says. "Thank you for this opportunity—like we'll never forget it."