Give me a C-H-A-R-I-T-Y!

What does that spell?

Five local cheer and dance teams know the word "charity" well as they put aside their school rivalries for a common cause this holiday season.

The teams from Mira Costa, Palos Verdes, South, North and Torrance high schools are holding a toy drive to help South Bay children diagnosed with autism.

The toys will help create a toy library at FirstSteps for Kids - a therapy center that works with autistic children through Applied Behavior Analysis in Hermosa Beach.

The idea came from Maria Crawford after her son started therapy there. Diagnosed with moderate to severe autism before he was even 2 years old, Zane, who's now 4, has seen tremendous improvement through ABA therapy, but Crawford saw one major concern.

"They don't know how to play with toys and the biggest problem with autistic kids is their social skills, so if they can't play with toys, how are they going to play with children?" Crawford says. "And so I learned that I had to keep a rotation of toys, and clearly that's very hard for any family to do."

Children with autism also need to be taught how to learn and how to generalize, which is best done with different types of toys, games and other equipment.

Crawford came up with the idea for "Zane's Toy Chest," where therapists and families can check out a toy for one of the children at FirstSteps. That child can use it for a week or so before returning it to the toy library so another child can then check it out.

With the rotating usage of toys, the goal is the child will learn how to play and socialize with other children while also focusing on other aspects of ABA therapy.

But Crawford needed help in making her dream happen.

As a former cheer coach at Mira Costa and a well-known choreographer in the South Bay, Crawford thought her ties to the cheer community might help. But she was blown away by the willingness each team showed in participating.

"A lot of these squads I've worked with and have seen them compete and come in first place and do all sorts of things, and I've never been more proud of these girls than I am now because of the way they've all stepped up and without question were just like, `Yeah, we'll do it,"' Crawford said.

Two girls from Mira Costa's varsity squad, Nicki Durazo and Ashley Cohen, have been involved with the Toy Library from the start, helping to sort through the inventory after the first toy drive and organizing the library.

Not only has their entire squad now jumped in to help, the entire school has offered to help with a toy drive starting in January.

The other squads are currently holding their toy drives and will continue to do so until Dec. 20.

By getting involved, Durazo said she believes they are setting a good example for their peers and encouraging people to be more accepting of autistic children.

"Even though cheer may be competitive, it's also important that we work together for stuff like this in order to have the community come together," Durazo says.

North High's squad was one of the few that did not have a connection to Crawford, but that didn't dampen its willingness to participate.

In fact, in addition to their cheer squad, Kayla Nakayama says some school clubs also have become involved.

"Everyone on our team is bringing a toy, one or two, but the outlook for clubs and their parents - I know someone who's bringing like 40 toy puppets that they have," Nakayama said.

"We leave the basket in the activities room and people can come by and drop in toys. ... It's surprising to see how well our communication skills got the word out."

South High's coach, Sacha Mendivil, said her girls wanted to get involved because they enjoy community projects. By giving back, she said, it gives them a broader picture of what's important.

FirstSteps therapist Justine Catubig said the donated toys will make a tremendous difference for these kids, allowing them to not only learn how to play but to learn about the world in a natural way.

As for the squads who are making that happen, Crawford said she hopes the experience will start something new, where they will continue to put their rivalries aside to come together for more charity work. 

"The fact that they took the time out of their busy schedules to do this and to bring awareness to autism, it just shows what kind of girls they are," Crawford said. "They step up to the occasion. They're amazing."

stephanie.cary@dailybreeze.com

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