OHS starts Bulldog Pride cheerleading squad for students with special needs
By Alison James
“Last year we would go to the pep rallies, and all the girls wanted to be like the cheerleaders. At a couple of the pep rallies, the varsity cheerleaders brought them out there with them, and they just loved it.”
When Tonya Lazzari saw how much the students in her special education class loved cheerleading, she and teachers Carolyn Vickerstaff and Kim Allen knew they had to provide more opportunities for them to participate in cheerleading. But what started as an idea to make the students part of a pep rally soon grew into the formation of an entirely new squad: the Bulldog Pride.
“It’s just a new thing,” said Lazzari of the concept of a cheerleading squad for students with special needs. The Bulldog Pride is one of only two such squads in the entire state. “I just thought it was something that would be great for our kids, and it’s really been so good for them.”
The Bulldog Pride – seven girls and two boys – cheered at every home football game this season. The squad will also be on the field at any at-home play-off games and home basketball games.
Attending away games is among the goals for next year’s squad, along with raising funds for official uniforms and doubling the squad size.
Lazzari said it’s been inspirational the way the rest of the student body has embraced the Bulldog Pride.
“The first pep rally we went to, we were a little nervous about how the student body would accept another (cheerleading squad),” Lazzari said. “They all were clapping and hollering for them. One of our boys, Cody, is a senior. And all of the varsity football players, when they called his name, ran up to him and were shouting, ‘Cody, Cody!’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Lazzari, Vickerstaff and Allen started the inaugural squad out by choosing nine students they believed would enjoy it and would commit to attending the games – not based at all on the perceived level of disability or any similar factors.
“Our kids don’t even think about that they have a disability,” Vickerstaff said. “They’re just cheerleaders … If we (chose them based on their perceived disability), we would have said, ‘Katy is never going to be able to be a cheerleader.’”
“And Kathleen,” Lazzari added.
“Yes, Kathleen wouldn’t even socialize or talk to anyone –”
“And now,” Lazzari said, “When we march with the band, she’s out with her pom-poms, leading the band.”
“Why should your disability stop you?” Vickerstaff said.
The varsity squad, with sponsor Brandy Edwards, donated pom-poms and megaphones to the Bulldog Pride, and Lazzari said the varsity cheerleaders have been supportive of the Bulldog Pride squad. The Bulldog Pride also borrows from the varsity cheers.
“We broke down about ten cheers that they other girls do. We’ve made the movements a little more simple,” Lazzari said. “We didn’t practice all the band dances, but they’ve watched the other cheerleaders and picked up a lot of stuff they do.
“It’s amazing the things they have picked up watching the varsity cheerleaders.”
And the coaches say the students love participating.
“We cheer out loud,” said cheerleader Taylor Woodall, whose favorite cheer is “Let’s Get a Little Bit Rowdy.” “I like the dances. (Cheerleading) is like gymnastics.”
“I thought it would be fun,” said Jasmine Tolefree, whose favorite cheer is “Step on the Grass.” “I’ve made new friends.”
Although the coaches said Superintendent Dr. Mark Neighbors was nervous about the squad at first, he said he feels “pride that our folks wanted to make sure all children are successful and included and taken care of.”
“You ought to see them on Friday,” Neighbors said. “One of the fellows … had his wrist taped up ready for game time. We’ve just got good people who take care of the kids.
“That’s what it’s about,” Neighbors continued. “It’s not always about test scores.”
And Lazzari said they hope to involve more of the school next year, adding regular students as peer mentors for the cheerleaders.
“All of the kids here have really embraced them,” Lazzari said. “They are part of the school now. They are out there with everybody else … It’s been really good, not just for us but for the whole school.”