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Ceres teen won't cheer life on the sidelines
Instead of allowing wheelchair confinement to rule her life, Mariah Mercer is not waiting to live.

At age 13, Mariah has endured more doctor visits and surgeries than the average adult as a result of being born with spina bifida. The broad smile on her face, however, triumphs over the wheelchair, where her half-functioning body sits.

Since age five, Mariah Mercer has been an inspiration to members of the Ceres Cowboys youth football cheerleading squads as well as spectators who watch her make up in arm movement for what she lacks in her legs. She wanted to join after seeing cheerleaders move and it looked like fun.

"I like to not think anything holds me back so I just do anything I can," said Mariah.

"At first I didn't know what they were going to expect," said her mother, Lisa Mercer, "but the Ceres Cowboys have always been supportive."

The eighth-grader remembers one time when a gentleman came up after a game and told her, "God bless you for what you're doing."

"I appreciated it. It's nice," said Mariah of those who encourage her. "A lot of people respect me for what I do."

Parents of other girls - even referees - find her an inspiration. That in turn has made the Mercers encouragers of others with disabilities.

"I want people to know that even if they have a child who has a disability that they can still do stuff," said Lisa. "Maybe there are children out there who feel that cheerleading might be something they wouldn't even think of doing because of a wheelchair. I want them to know that as long as you put your mind to anything you can do it and my daughter is proof of that. I want her to be an inspiration to others."

As she leaves Mae Hensley Junior High School, Mariah has her eyes set on trying out for the Ceres High School cheerleading squad.

Before Mariah's birth, doctors told her mother that there was something wrong with her spinal cord. It became apparent that she suffered from spina bifida (myelomeningocele), a birth defect in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth. It affects as many as one out of 800 infants. Doctors repaired the disconnected spinal cord but nerve damaged resulted. The condition leaves her unable to feel her body from the waist down, and the inability to move has caused her legs and feet to nearly lock up.

To prevent hydrocephalus (swelling of the brain caused by fluid build-up), a shunt was installed to allow fluid to drain from her head to her stomach.

Mariah has not always been wheelchair bound. Prior to the fourth grade she could around a bit with braces on her legs. She even joined Steps Arts Dance for jazz and ballet dancing. Eventually she began tripping more and more until she could no longer walk.

Doctors have hopes that a surgery this summer can straighten her legs to allow her to walk with the aid of a walker. She would need more physical therapy to condition her thigh muscles to support her weight.

Mariah was selected one of four out of 12 to join the cheerleading All-Stars team, which practiced in Tracy and performed in Stockton until disbanding in December.

While team members are dancing for half-time shows, Mariah is in step with her arms. She can turn her chair in quarters while keeping up with arm movements.

"If we're doing cheers, I try to move along," said Mariah.

"We joke around about it because when she's dancing and she's doing her routine she has the whole facial thing like a cheerleader does, like really spirited," said her mom. "She really gets her face and arms into it. She gets so into it, besides the jumping, she's doing everything else.

As the cheerleaders were doing their own stunts in back, Mariah and another cheerleader with disabilities were in front using the wheelchair to do their own pyramid.

"It was kind of cute how they worked it in."

When stepdad Eric Housden first came into the family, he remembers the determination he saw in Mariah, then two.

"Strong as an ox because of her upper body - everything was upper body," said Eric. "But she dragged herself everywhere because at that time they had the strap braces on her. Those were horrible."

Mariah rarely feels sorry for herself.

"Sometimes I wish that I was like other kids but then sometimes I don't because, it's like, I still do everything everybody else does."

Things like be a cheerleader.