There were jitters and primping, hugs and pep talks. Even a few tears.
A nervous 13-year-old Midori Sparks asked her coaches if she should change up her routine last-minute by performing a split, instead of a cartwheel.
It was a scene one might expect to find before a cheerleading competition. But for the First Redeemer Flames, just getting to compete is a feat.
The team, comprised of seven girls with special needs, drew roaring applause Saturday from the crowd at Lambert High, host of the Fellowship of Christian Cheerleaders Georgia State Cheerleading Championships.
“It was just such a thrill,” said Traci Skidmore, whose 8-year-old daughter Alayna cheers for the Flames. “I can’t describe it.
It was just a thrill to see her out there and everybody cheering for them and motivating them to just do what they want to do.
“It’s very emotional out there for me to see her out there living it and seeing everybody being so supportive of her.”
First Redeemer Church has several Flames teams and touts a competitive cheer program. But this is the first year for a team of girls with special needs.
The idea started with South Forsyth High students Christine Rueger and Kristen Hopper.
Having worked with the Special Olympics, the teenagers “thought it would be cool if we started a cheer team,” Hopper said.
“It just kind of fell into place perfectly,” she said. “Their older sisters are cheerleaders and now they get to be cheerleaders, rather than sitting on the side.
“Now they can wear their uniforms like their older sisters and they can be proud that they can do the same thing.”
The team is open to girls ages 5 to 18 with physical and mental limitations. Also on the team are volunteers who help with lifts and pyramids to form the bottom foundation for the stunts.
Rueger and Hopper, with the help of their mothers, Beth and Cheryl, and volunteers from the church, led practices every Friday. The squad has participated in four Saturday competitions.
“I’m very proud that Christina and Kristen started this and followed through with it,” Beth Rueger said. “It’s changed my life and it definitely has changed the lives of these families and the girls that have helped out.”
The girls dance to popular songs, such as Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” Their routines tend to correlate with the lyrics to make memorizing moves easier, Rueger said.
“We do the routine based on what they like and what the individual girl can do … they all love jumping,” Rueger said. “They have been such a blessing to us — to give us a chance to give them what other kids have.”
While other teams were competing for a slot in the national championship, the Flames’ performance was more of an exhibition, Kristen Hopper said.
“Honestly, none of the girls have asked if they got first place. They don’t even think of it as a competition,” she said. “They just think they’re going out and showing everyone what they can do.”
For Sparks, who has Down syndrome, that means dancing and cartwheels.
“It’s great. I can’t wait for them to put me in,” she said. “I do my dance moves every single time.”
Rueger and Hopper, both juniors, say they will continue to coach the team their senior year.
They hope, however, to get younger friends involved so they can ensure the team will be around after they move on.
Cheryl Hopper said she won’t let the program end.
“It takes a lot of people to make this team happen,” she said. “Hopefully we can pass the baton to somebody, but I don’t know. We’ll see. I may be here for life.
“These little girls make us feel so special.”
The volunteers also help with some of the last-minute jitters, which is something Skidmore is happy about because Alayna, who also has Down syndrome, is usually too nervous to walk out on her own.
“They’ve had to carry her out,” Skidmore said. “But after every competition she comes running to me saying, ‘Mommy I did it, I did it.’ It’s the first thing she says because she’s very proud of herself.
“It’s very thrilling to see what the kids can do. They were up there doing those pyramids just like all the other cheerleaders out there. They just had to have a little more help. And it’s just an inspiration to me that our kids can do what the other kids can do with just a little help.”