By Donna Williamson
Bulldog Pride, the cheer squad formed for special needs students at Opelika High School (OHS) became a reality two years ago because of the vision of Tonya Lazzari and Carolyn Vickerstaff, two special education teachers at the school.
Lazzari, who is beginning her 26th year in special education, teaches the transition classes. Vickerstaff teaches the life skills’ class, as well as the severe and profound class, and is beginning her 38th year as a special education teacher.
These veteran teachers have now added cheerleader adviser/coach to their list of responsibilities. “All girls want to be cheerleaders. A girl in my life skills class loved the cheerleaders and wanted to be one,” Vickerstaff said.
“We talked to Brandy Edwards, cheer coach, about the girls going to cheer camp (a camp held for younger children). Brandy allowed them to attend at no charge. She has been very supportive,” Lazzari added.
After going through the proper channels, Lazzari and Vickerstaff showed their students that dreams can become reality and the Bulldog Pride cheer squad was formed. “We’re the Bulldogs and we teach pride. Our students have so much pride. Our squad is so full of pride,” Vickerstaff said, in explaining how the name came about.
The first year the squad had eight girls and two boys and this year they have 10 girls and one boy. “Four of our cheerleaders have Down’s Syndrome and one has Cerebral Palsy. They love cheering,” Vickerstaff said.
Kim Allen, Vickerstaff’s assistant, also helps with the cheerleaders. “All three of us are on the field during the game. We are a team. Kim’s daughter Brandee also volunteers because she loves to help,” Lazzari said.
“Kim came in and was on board immediately. She knew she wasn’t required to stay and put in the extra time,” Vickerstaff said. “When people have a passion, they don’t mind doing.”
According to Lazzari, everything was donated the first year, with no cost to the students. “This year each parent paid $100. We ordered real uniforms, shoes, socks, and pom poms,” Lazzari said. “As a fundraiser, the squad sells spirit ribbons on Friday. Our cheerleaders aren’t shy at all about walking into a classroom and selling the ribbons. Cheering has helped them overcome their shyness and improve their social skills. Everybody knows them. Cheering has given our students an identity.”
Vickerstaff admits that in the beginning she had reservations about forming a cheer squad for special needs’ students. She said, “At first I was reluctant. I didn’t know what the reception would be. However, the OHS student body has accepted our students with open arms. When the Bulldog Pride squad was introduced at a pep rally, the students screamed for them and our students owned it; it was theirs. There hasn’t been anything negative from anyone.”
Besides cheering, the Bulldog Pride squad has participated in other activities. Vickerstaff says that performing with the band during pregame this year was “over the top.” Another highlight was being in a commercial with Coach Brian Blackmon, along with Ope and Lika, for Gentry & Ware Motor Co. “They love to watch themselves in that commercial,” Vickerstaff said.
Lazzari was extremely proud of the group when they performed at the transition conference at Auburn University. “Many teachers there asked us about the program. Maybe more programs like ours will develop,” she said. “Right now, I believe that Spanish Fort is the only other school in Alabama that has special needs’ cheerleaders.”
The advisers are thankful for the support they have received from the community and the school. “Victory Designs has been so helpful. We just call and tell them what we need,” Lazzari said. “And we appreciate the support from D. Mark Mitchell and the Booster Club, as well as Emily Severin who has made the girls’ hair ribbons for the past two years.”
Vickerstaff says that the OHS Anchor Club makes healthy goody bags for the cheerleaders every Friday and since the cheerleaders do not go home on game day, Mrs. Brenda Lilly, cafeteria manager, feeds them with the football team.
Home-game Fridays do not end early for these advisers. Lazzari and Vickerstaff arrive at approximately 7:00 a.m. to start their normal school day. However, when the school day ends for others, the second part of their day is just beginning. “The cheerleaders stay after school on game day and we stay with them,” Lazzari said. “We help get them dressed and fix their hair. They eat and get ready for the Dog Walk, which begins at 6:00.”
The advisers stand on the field with the cheerleaders during the entire game. The cheerleaders’ safety is top priority. “We stand between them and the football field. If a play comes our way, we tell them to run toward the wall,” Lazzari explained.
After the game, the cheerleaders go back to their classroom area. “We keep all of their uniforms and other cheerleading stuff at school. We even do their laundry so that everything is clean for the next game,” Vickerstaff said. “The students are picked up by their parents in the classroom. If parents don’t show, then Tonya and I take the students home. We usually get home between 11:00 and 11:30.”
The advisers do not receive any compensation for their extra hours of dedication. “The look on our cheerleaders’ faces on Friday night when they run onto the field makes it all worth while,” Vickerstaff said.
Lazzari is in complete agreement. “Friday is a long, exhausting day but we love doing what we do. This program has been life-changing for us,” she said. And it appears to have been life-changing for the students as well.