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Girls Bask in Their New Destiny: Cheerleaders

Practicing before a competition in Baltimore are Destiny team members Clare Kearney, left, helped by Marlo Bloom; Tiffany Roberts, with Gracie Crow; and Marissa Melletz with Robyn Weintraub. All of the members of the squad have disabilities.
Practicing before a competition in Baltimore are Destiny team members Clare Kearney, left, helped by Marlo Bloom; Tiffany Roberts, with Gracie Crow; and Marissa Melletz with Robyn Weintraub. All of the members of the squad have disabilities. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
VIDEO | Special Needs Teams Perform in Cheerleading Competition
VIDEO | Awards Ceremonies Recognize Special Needs Cheerleaders
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By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007

Arriving at a gym in Gaithersburg, Clare Kearney bounds inside -- 13 years old, petite, with fine brown hair and delicate glasses. Excited. This is a place where competitive cheerleaders practice, girls who can pull off perfect roundoffs and handsprings and back tucks.

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This is Clare's place.

It matters little that she does not do those sophisticated moves, or that she has Down syndrome and autism, or that, in the beginning, she seemed to barely look at her teammates. Now she stands beside them at practice. She claps. She brings both arms above her head in a V.

When her workout is over, she wraps her arms around one girl, then another, hugging them.

On Clare's team, all the girls have disabilities: autism, Down syndrome, other conditions that delay development. Some have more physical skill. Some are more communicative. But together they are Destiny, cheerleaders all, a troupe of 12 that has produced what was missing in many of their lives: Belonging. Acceptance. Friendship.

"It's like they have found themselves in one another," said Laura Thomas, who has watched her 14-year-old daughter, Chloe, grow more self-confident and compassionate as her connection with the other girls has deepened.

The team that has worked so well for Clare and Chloe is part of a quiet but growing grass-roots effort to create more activities outside of school for children with disabilities. Its successes have come one at a time, often driven by parents, nearly 40 years after Special Olympics introduced athletic competition into the world of the intellectually disabled.

"It's sort of a viral effect -- as more are created, more follow," said Marguerite Kirst Colston of the Autism Society of America, who cited examples across the country, including movie nights, gymnastics classes, day camps. "There are definitely more parents involved. They get together and come up with an idea, and that program gets replicated."

This is particularly visible in cheerleading. In the past year, special-needs teams have more than doubled at private cheerleading gyms to nearly 160 squads in 34 states. As recently as seven years ago, there were none. Separately, in Special Olympics, at least eight states now offer a local cheerleading program.

"It's huge," said Mary Fehrenbach, a Kentucky coach who in 2001 started the first special-needs all-star team, the Kentucky Elite Showcats. "I knew this would happen if we could just get people out there to see it. . . . They can do things. They just need the chance."

At a time when 5.5 million schoolchildren have physical or intellectual disabilities and relatively few options for before- or after-school sports and recreation, the need is great, said James H. Rimmer, director of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

For the Destiny team, the experience has been transformative. The girls, age 7 to 15, have become more talkative, more socially comfortable, more engaged, their parents say. They have made physical strides.


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