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Lambert junior honored for leadership

Teen oversees special needs cheer squad

POSTED: April 4, 2013 12:26 a.m.
Alyssa LaRenzie/

Lambert High junior Rachel Van Dyke has been named one of Georgia’s 20 Under 20.

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A Lambert High School junior was recently named among the top young leaders in the state for her work as a special needs cheerleading coach.

Rachel Van Dyke is part of the 20 Under 20–Georgia’s Youth Leadership Awards presented by 21st Century Leaders.

Since she didn’t know she had been nominated, Van Dyke was “shocked” to receive the honor from the organization and members of an Atlanta “40 Under 40” group.

She later learned that her AP U.S. History teacher had recommended her for the award, based on an activity that she runs outside of school.

The 17-year-old has devoted nine years to operating Special Twist, a cheerleading group for young people with special needs.

She founded the nonprofit when she was 8 to create a place where everyone could enjoy the activity she loved.

“I had seen my brother do Miracle League and help out the special needs children playing baseball, which is what he played,” Van Dyke said. “So I thought why not start my own cheerleading program and be able to help influence these special needs children.”

In 2004, very few groups like hers existed, though the offering has grown in popularity since then.

Van Dyke has seen many changes over the years with her cheerleaders.

“A lot of them have definitely grown and they have learned new skills that they would have never been able to,” she said. “I see big smiles every Sunday.”

Van Dyke’s mother, Stacey, who has helped with the organization, said one of the biggest changes in the students is in the “social aspect.”

The team is open to anyone who wouldn’t be able to participate easily in mainstream sports, Stacey Van Dyke said.

The squad takes part in the competitive Allstars cheer program under a division for special needs teams.

The group attends the national championship in Atlanta each year, but Rachel Van Dyke hopes to get them to the world competition in Orlando, Fla.

Her recent award as a youth leader in Georgia will help fund the trip, since she was also selected as one of two recipients of $500 for her organization.

Rachel Van Dyke said she feels a leader is someone that other people “look up to for help.”

She was in good company at the awards banquet, which honored teens for a variety of achievements.

“The awardees were chosen for initiating endeavors such as businesses and clubs, for demonstrating superior leadership skills and for being outstanding role models for other youth,” according to a release from the 21st Century Leaders.

Stacey Van Dyke enjoyed hearing what all the teens had done during the banquet and watching the business leaders of Atlanta honor them.

She said one business owner “recognized Rachel and just took an immediate shine to her. To start networking at such a young age with such a diverse group of people was very interesting.”

Rachel Van Dyke aspires to lead a class as a teacher after she attends college, something in which she’s gained experience through her coaching as well as mentoring at Sharon Elementary School.

Her mother said the career path her daughter has chosen is “very admirable.”

“It makes a mother very proud,” she said.

 

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