Centerville • The cheerleaders, stacked two high to form a tunnel, chant "Go Chargers, go Chargers, go!" as volleyball team members run beneath them as they are introduced.
Eighteen cheerleaders cheer, volleyball players pound the floor, kids and parents in the stand clap, the noise is deafening as Centerville Junior High prepares to play South Davis Junior High. In the thick of this organized chaos are four Centerville Junior High students with Down Syndrome.
Those four junior high students eighth grader Colton Beck, 13; eighth grader Mary Lee, 14; eighth grader Caleb Monsen, 13; and seventh grader Maegan Lindsey, 12 are not sitting in the stands, they aren't sitting at all. They are on the court with the other 14 cheerleaders, dressed out in cheerleading garb preparing to cheer their team to victory.
Amber Stott, the Functional Skills teacher at Centerville Junior High was approached by cheer coach Angela Petty after Petty attended a cheer camp and learned about a grant that supported integrating special needs students into cheer programs. Together they decided this was a great program and they wanted their students to participate.
The grant came from The Sparkle Effect, a student-run program that helps students create cheerleading and dance teams that include students with disabilities.
The Sparkle Effect's goal is to change the lives and outlooks of student participants, those with and without disabilities. The group's goal is to replace insecurities with confidence and joy. Sparkle Effect President Sarah Cronk states "teams are not about perfection, they are about connection."
At Centerville Junior High, the connection is there.
Teacher Amber Stott selected the cheerleaders based on a previous performance her students had done to the Michael Jackson song "Thriller." Stott chose the students who enjoyed performing and had parents willing to provide all the extra support required for such a time-intensive extracurricular activity.
Stott has not seen any negatives to the program and said students at the Junior High have taken the addition of special needs cheerleaders in stride and welcomed it.
"No one has questioned it, it's just normal to them" she said.
Colton Beck is a born performer. He's been in plays since he was young and loves to be in the spotlight. He loves to cheer and his enthusiasm is contagious. Colton has a smile and a hug for everyone he meets.
While Petty said the four cheerleaders with Down Syndrome may be one or two beats behind in the cheers, they don't let it slow them down.
"It chokes you up. I feel like these kids are on the front line with this program. I hope this goes into other schools and becomes the norm, and people will start seeing kids with disabilities as regular kids" said Colton's mom Laurie Beck.
Beck was not worried about the reception the kids would receive from Centerville Junior High students because they have been with the same kids since kindergarten. She was concerned about how the special needs cheerleaders would be treated by students from visiting schools, but thus far all reactions have been favorable.
Parents of the cheerleaders love the physical fitness aspect, practicing verbal and memorization skills and the social interaction that come from their participation.
Petty works weekly with the students and is pleased with the program. Her cheerleaders have been receptive to their new team members.
"The girls are really good about being friends and have enjoyed the relationships," Petty said.
Mary Lee loves cheering and looks forward to all the games and practices. Her mom said that learning the routines has helped her with her coordination and mental abilities.
Caleb Monson is the shyest of the cheerleaders, but he still loves participating. Mostly he loves his megaphone and cheer shirt with his last name across the back. The only thing that would make him happier would be if they could replace the letters CJH on their blue uniforms with the letters BYU.
Caleb's mom, Jeanine Monson, said that children with Down Syndrome tend to imitate and model the behavior they are exposed to. The cheerleading team has been a great group of role models.
One of those role models is 14-year-old ninth grade cheerleader Abby Oligschlaeger. In addition to working with the cheerleaders, Oligschlaeger is a peer tutor. Working with the special education students comes naturally to her.
"Sometimes it's hard to get them to cooperate, but we just try to talk them through it and we have a lot of fun," she said.