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Cheer program opens up cheer team to kids with special needs

By KBell
May 21, 2011 at 12:21 a.m.

Jackie Greathouse, 13, left, and Divine Garza, 9, talk on the mat during cheerleading practice with the Victoria Champion Cheer team at Victoria Gymagic. The team is working to start a cheerleading team for people with disabilities. Divine, who suffers from impaired motor skills, became interested in cheerleading after her sister joined the team.

Divine Garza stretched her pompoms by her side as she balanced above the heads of her peers at a Victoria Champion Cheer practice.

The 9-year-old with special needs dismounted the lift to warm up among the ranks of the other cheerleaders. By the end of her first practice with the group, she'd be shedding her glasses to showcase a forward roll.

"I get emotional about it because I think it's the sweetest thing in the world to be able to offer them the opportunity to be something they otherwise wouldn't be able to do," said Kristy Justice, head coach of Victoria Champion Cheer.

Justice, who's coached cheerleading for 25 years, said she has noticed a recent trend at competitions - teams of cheerleaders with special needs. She saw an opportunity for the Crossroads' community, a void Justice knew her team would be able to fill.

"Everybody needs the opportunity to be whatever they want to be," she said.

Justice is getting the ball tumbling for a team for kids and adults with special needs who will travel to competitions with the other cheerleaders.

The program is open to boys and girls ages 4 and older. Justice is hoping to provide the uniforms and travel for free.

Aspiring cheerleaders can join regardless of their physical or mental limitations.

"As long as they can be on the floor, it doesn't matter because our experienced cheerleaders are going to be out there," Justice said. "You want to accentuate what they can do, and we'll use them in the routine like that."

After helping out at the Special Olympics in April, the entire Victoria Champion Cheer team is excited about sharing the opportunity to cheer with those who have special needs, Justice said.

Several of the girls said they were looking forward to continuing the experience they enjoyed at the Special Olympics.

"Divine, you can sit by me," one of the girls yelled across the gym at the beginning of practice.

Divine was born prematurely and suffered from a stroke that resulted in motor and cognitive difficulties. But with her hair in a side ponytail and her smile naturally explosive, Divine fit right into the mix of cheerleaders, following their warm ups with not the least bit of inhibition.

"She'll try anything," her mom, Denise Garza, said. "She's excited about the tumbling and, of course, she thinks she can do everything."

That's just the attitude Justice is trying to inspire.

"It's very rewarding. It helps with motor skills and development, and also helps with self esteem," she said.

For several of the kids, cheerleading is also an opportunity to connect with their non-disabled siblings, as is the case with Divine, who's 13-year-old sister, Dezirae, is on the team.

"That's what really excited her - that she was going to be following behind her sister," Divine's mom said.

Justice said other programs offer opportunities, like baseball, to people with special needs, but cheerleading is a whole other kind of adventure.

With cheerleading, there's music, dance, tumbling and constant progression in learning new skills, Justice said. And of course, there's the fun and pride that comes with performing with your friends.

"They can hear the music, and they get to wear the uniform. They know that they're a part of it," she said.



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