The Sunshine squad of the Capital Elite All-Stars is among teams provided for students with Down syndrome, autism and other developmental disabilities. It is a growing trend in both the competitive and recreational cheerleading worlds.
Eleven-year-old Megan Harter beams as she’s tossed into the air.
The Ridgley Elementary School student relishes her time cheerleading with the Sunshine squad of the Capital Elite All-Stars.
Megan is a hard worker who lets nothing get in the way. She was born with a brain hemorrhage and a learning disability, and her mom worried no cheerleading programs would be available for the energetic girl.
But, about 18 months ago, Megan joined the Sunshine squad for children with special needs.
Providing teams for students with Down syndrome, autism and other developmental disabilities is a growing trend in both the competitive and recreational cheerleading worlds.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the special need athletes themselves. You can just see when they perform how excited they are,” said Sheryl Callison, managing director of the Illinois Recreational Cheerleading Association, which organizes competitions in northern Illinois. “To be honest, usually everyone’s crying (when they perform) … It’s such a nice team-building experience for the athletes, just to make them feel a part of something.”
Since forming in 2011, the Sunshine team has steadily consisted of eight to 10 children between 5 and 18 years old, said Capital Elite owner Debbie Sprague. There are currently nine members, but Sprague would like to see 12 children participate. She doesn’t charge tuition for the children on the special needs team.
At competitions, there are often two or three teams for students with special needs.
“It’s been a growing trend through the all-star industry,” Sprague said. “They’ve done fabulous … every time we go to a competition, they’re a crowd pleaser.”
With its own grand champion banners hanging from the ceiling, the Sunshine team usually practices on Saturdays. The seven girls and two boys work through dance routines, pyramids and cheers.
During practices, cheerleaders from the elite teams at the gym help. They work on stunts with the Sunshine squad members so the kids can experience what it’s like to be lifted into the air.
After dancing, the cheerleaders take turns showing off their moves. Performing cartwheels and jumps, they have wide smiles as parents, peers and coaches clap and cheer for them.
The Sunshine stars will take the stage in St. Charles, Mo., today. While other teams battle for top honors in their divisions, this squad wins each competition, with judges awarding grand champion honors to all special needs teams participating.
“I get to be with my team and when we go to competitions, we just do our best,” Megan said.
All-star teams for cheerleaders with special needs started forming about 10 years ago, said Sheila Noone, vice president of public relations for Varsity, which works with the United States All Star Federation. The federation is a nonprofit governing body for competitive cheerleading in the U.S.
“It’s good to get everybody involved,” Noone said. “I think it’s a way for everybody to give back.”
Cheerleading is a great sport for all children and teenagers, she said.
“There are no barriers to enter cheerleading. It’s not like you have to be 6 feet tall like a basketball player,” Noone added. “All of these kids have something to contribute.”
The Illinois Recreational Cheerleading Association has two special needs teams, with 40 athletes. However, there is talk of a third team forming.
Good for many aspects of life
Through cheerleading, Megan’s formed new friendships, gained important confidence and focused on exercise in a fun way.
Megan says she loves spending time with her teammates. Plus, she adores the sparkles on her uniform and the big bow she wears in her hair.
Her mom said the squad has changed her daughter’s life.
“It’s been a blessing. It’s helped her in other areas,” said Megan’s mom, Tammy Harter. “She enjoys it. She loves the attention she gets and the morale of all the coaches and all the teammates as they support each other, along with the other teams from the gym.”
Megan’s mom pictured her cheerleading, but the girl’s disability keeps traditional programs from being adaptable.
“It’s been an eye-opening (experience). It’s things that we didn’t think that she’d be able to do, and she’s just blossomed,” Tammy said. “It means a whole lot that there’s somebody out there in the area that tailors to children with special needs ... There’s a gym that we can take our kids to that’s willing to put in the time for them to (have the same opportunities as) everybody else.”
Megan’s coordination has improved. So has her view of herself.
“(It’s important for her) to know that people care enough about her and she doesn’t have to worry about the outside, from what she’s been through,” Tammy said. “She’s my hero.”
Five-year-old Sadie Fiedler joined the team one month ago. She has Down syndrome. At a little over 3 feet tall, she’s the shortest and the youngest person on the team.
“It really helps her. It keeps her flexible, and she gets to meet other friends,” said Barb Fiedler, Sadie’s mom. “It’s fun. I wish I could do it.”
While at cheerleading, the girl with an infectious smile looks forward to stunting, where older girls hoist her into the sky. Sadie points to the lights on the ceiling to describe how high up she goes.
The enthusiastic girl’s not afraid to ham it up for the camera. She dances and makes funny faces.
“She likes makeup. She likes her hair done up and she shows off,” Barb Fiedler said.
While some of the gym’s teams practice for 30 hours per week, the Sunshine squad only works for one hour each week. It’s an hour the coaches look forward to all week long.
Stephanie Higgerson and her mother, Jo, started working with the special needs team when it launched two years ago. Stephanie, 17, cheers on the Senior and International Co-Ed teams.
“I love it,” Stephanie said about working with the other athletes. “It’s fun to see how excited they are.”
Stephanie said the practices help her keep things in perspective.
“They’re always happy to be here,” she said. “We take it for granted.”
The team gives these athletes a good environment in which to compete, Jo said.
“They get up their with confidence and face their fears and fly,” she said. “They’re a tremendous blessing in our life because they face their fears and do things … I feel blessed to work with them.”
The coaches may be teaching the cheerleaders how to dance, but the children teach everybody in the gym.
“Everybody just got so much more tolerant. It’s just understanding that everybody’s not the same, and it’s OK,” Sprague said. “They surprise me more than you can imagine.”
“A lot of them, the first couple weeks, had a hard time being on our floor, which isn’t even a stage or an arena. Now, they have no trouble walking out in front of 5,000 people and it’s just really good for them to feel included.”
All week, the coaches look forward to working with the Sunshine team.
“Just seeing their smiles, just lights up the room, just lights up my day,” said coach Misty Burris. “When we go to competition, everybody stands on their feet. They couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Improvement is evident
Through hard work, the team members quickly improved. They’re still getting better at each practice.
New Berlin’s Eric Snider, 9, has autism. When he first started attending Sunshine practices, he was scared to do a forward roll. Now, he gets lifted in the air, balances and moves about the floor.
“He’s doing it all now,” Burris said.
Eric gained confidence through cheerleading.
“It’s amazing,” said his mom, Tracy Bergae. “They believe that they should be there.”
Eric’s 16-year-old sister has also cheered at Capital Elite.
“It’s just like a little me on the floor,” said his sister, Jessica Esper. “I think it makes them come out of their shell.”
Eight-year-old Noah Davis joined the team in its first year.
“We just gave it a try and we’ve been with them ever since,” said his mom, Ana Davis. “He loves coming to jump. He’s very active.”
For both mother and son, the team helps them feel like they have a place in Springfield.
“We feel like we’ve been accepted in the community, that we’re being loved and just accepted. You can’t really take a child with special needs out in public (without getting) a lot of stares, but not here.
“It’s an amazing feeling and I don’t think I want to leave.”