Show Some Spirit!

The First Redeemer Flames Special Needs Cheerleading Squad Builds Confidence in Kids with Disabilities

The Flames Competition Team
Photo: Cheryl Hoppe

PQ: “That became our motto —  ‘I did it.’ It has sort of become a life motto to all of us now, to know that we can do it.” – Cheryl Hopper, The Flames Adult Supervisor

Once or twice each week, the gym at First Redeemer Church in Cumming fills with a gaggle of girls eager to dance, tumble and cheer. The spirited bunch are members of The Flames special needs cheerleading squad, a team created by South Forsyth High School (SFHS) students Christine Rueger and Kristen Hopper to provide a fun after-school activity for young girls with disabilities.

One of the cheerleaders, Macy, is non-verbal, so Kristen uses some sign language with her, but for the most part, the communication barrier doesn’t seem to be a problem. It’s obvious that the coaches and a group of volunteer helpers truly love spending time with these girls, and the mutual adoration is all the language they need as they play, laugh and dance together. At a recent summer practice, one team member showed off her cartwheel skills while another taught the group to do a forward roll on the gymnastics mat at the center of the room. Cheryl Hopper, Kristen’s mom and the team’s adult supervisor, welcomed a brand-new member with a bear hug before she scampered off to join the others as if she’d been part of the team from the beginning. The coaches and volunteers led the girls in a few cheers and some stunts (serving as bases for the sake of safety) and then ended practice in a collective game of duck, duck, goose.

When the school year starts, these practices will combine playtime with a healthy dose of hard work to prepare a routine for competitions sponsored by Atlanta-based Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders, but the primary purpose of these informal practices is to refresh basic skills and engage in fellowship with the other girls.
    
Conquering Competitions
The Flames started their first season last year with a team of seven girls ages 6 to 18 with a variety of disabilities ranging from muscular dystrophy to Downs syndrome.

“Kristen and I had volunteered together [in the past] with Special Olympics, and we both found a passion there,” Christine said. “We wanted to do something more to impact the community and help special needs children.” With Kristen’s experience in cheerleading with SFHS and another competition squad through First Redeemer Sports, a special needs team seemed like the natural choice.

“With cheerleading, anyone can be involved. It’s not like baseball or basketball where children need specific skills,” Christine said. “Cheerleading allows us to work around their skills and still teach new things … Plus, it’s fun and encouraging for them.”

The team met to practice every Friday last fall to prepare for four local cheerleading competitions. Though Cheryl said it took some of the younger girls a little while to grasp the point, they were ready to perform by their first competition.

“A couple weeks before our first competition, I thought wow, we don’t have a routine,” Cheryl admitted. “We had a cheer and they knew how to do little jumps, but I wondered if they were going to be able to do a routine from start to finish to music.” To prepare, the coaches planned a dress rehearsal for the girls to practice in uniform in front of an audience of parents and fellow First Redeemer cheerleading squads. “When we turned the music on, they did it from start to finish. It was just a miracle,” she continued with pride.

Choreographed by Kristen with input from Christine and Cheryl, the 2 1/2-minute routine combines a cheer, stunt, dance and pyramid and advances as the season continues and the girls become more comfortable.

“We tried different things until we could find something that worked for everyone… it started off pretty simple, and as we got further into the season, we added stunts and we let different girls fly,” Kristen said. One team member, Midori, choreographed her own dance to show off her more advanced skills in the routine, while another, Morgan, conquered her fear of stunts by the end of the season.

But perhaps the most touching example of the team’s progress was displayed in young Alayna.

“[At the first competition] it was very loud. They had smoke blowing and strobe lights, and it was a little overwhelming when we were backstage waiting our turn to go on,” Cheryl explained. “The girls got really nervous, and as we were walking on to the competition floor, it was just too much [for Alayna]. The stimulation was overwhelming, and she stopped. She would not walk, she would not move. So we went on without her.” Luckily, The Flames had the opportunity to compete a second time that day, and this time, Alayna joined her team on the competition floor.

“As soon as it was over, she ran off the floor into her mother’s arms shouting ‘I did it, I did it!’” Cheryl continued. “That became our motto —  ‘I did it.’ It has sort of become a life motto to all of us now, to know that we can do it.”

Cultivating Confidence
The girls also had the opportunity to participate in a SFHS Varsity girls’ basketball game.    

“They loved the pom-poms and they loved meeting the cheerleaders,” Christine said. “During halftime, they got to perform their routine for a gym filled with parents, students and athletes. That was especially exciting and special to us, because we got to go out into the community.” Plans are in the works for a similar experience for this year’s squad, which will welcome all seven original members, plus several new faces, bringing the total to 14.

Though some parents have expressed concern that their children won’t be able to participate, the coaches and volunteers are all really good at working with the girls, encouraging them, and walking them through the routine. The squad has proven to be great exercise for the cheerleaders, as well as a confidence builder and an outlet for social interaction.

“We make it our goal to show these girls so much love and to make them feel special and extraordinary,” Rueger added. And the team has been rewarding for the coaches, as well.

“I want to be a speech therapist. The cheerleading team has definitely helped me figure that out, because I love working with special needs children,” Christine said. For Kristen, the reward comes with watching the smiles on the girls’ faces when they achieve something. “It’s so amazing to hear Alayna say ‘I did it,’” she offered as an example. “She’s so proud of herself, and I got to be a part of helping her feel that way.”

For More Information
To learn more about The Flames special needs cheerleading squad, please contact Cheryl Hopper at cdhopper@bellsouth.net.

First Redeemer Sports also offers cheerleading teams in standard divisions for 2nd grade and under, 4th grade and under, 6th grade and under, and high school. For more information on any division, please call 678-513-9411 or visit frcsports.org.