BOCA RATON, Fla. - They have the moves, the motivation and the big smiles to inspire thousands of classmates to get up on their feet and clap.
But these seven cheerleaders at Boca Raton High School bring something extra special to the sidelines and school pep rallies — themselves.
They are members of the new Spirit Squad, a group of disabled students who receive an enthusiastic response when they perform routines in uniform next to the regular cheer and dance teams.
"It makes me feel like being a backup cheerleader in a music video by Katy Perry or Taylor Swift," said senior Jacqueline Warne, 17, after a recent practice.
The special education cheerleading program may be unusual for a high school, but it has already shattered some common views about cheerleaders and gained a prominent role on campus.
"We like to put our Spirit Squad in front of the performance," Coach Tiffany O'Bryan said. "They are our stars, because they remind us that life is hopeful and joyous no matter how large or encompassing an obstacle may be."
Debbie Hughes says she noticed the crowd at the first pep rally where the squad was introduced and then grooved to the song "Footloose."
"There were tears everywhere," recalls Hughes, whose daughter Sara Daniels, 20, cheers despite a lifelong struggle with cerebral palsy and a severe seizure disorder.
"They are so proud of themselves," Hughes said of the squad members. "They are doing things they never thought they could do."
When Daniels performs or practices, her full-time aide, Linda Lubinsky, says she stays close and intervenes when she sees Daniels appear at risk of having an attack.
All of the squad members' parents are delighted the school formed the program after some of the students expressed an interest in cheerleading, Hughes said. There's already talk of trying to expand the squad next year.
A key part of the unit's initial success has been weekly assistance and training provided by three members of the junior varsity cheerleading team: Paige Sterrenberg, Margot Kessler and Grace Ann McKee.
They are 14-year-old freshmen who model the cheers for the squad and offer plenty of encouragement during after-school practices each Monday and Wednesday, O'Bryan said.
"They basically do what we do," Sterrenberg said. "They can handle it. They pick it up really fast."
McKee, daughter of Principal Geoff McKee, says she can't wait to see the Spirit Squad to do "some stunts and jumping."
That optimism is shared by Christine DonFrancesco, head coach of the Bobcat Spirit Program, which consists of the JV and varsity cheer and dance teams, and now the Spirit Squad.
She's been moved by the warmth displayed by the cheerleaders and dancers, along with the entire school community.
"Members of the cheerleading and dance teams are especially welcoming to the special needs girls because it helps to break down the stereotype that many cheerleading and dance teams are exclusive or even shallow," DonFrancesco said. "It keeps all of us — coaches and athletes alike — in check and focused on the fun of the activity."
The Spirit Squad is keeping up a busy pace, with performances during last week's holiday parade in the city and pep rally on campus, and varsity home basketball games. Receiving such a tremendous reception from the student body has been uplifting for everyone involved.
"I have been blown away by how supportive the students are of their performances," DonFrancesco said. "I know for a fact that their support is what fuels the Spirit Squad girls to want to get out and perform again and again."
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