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The City Journals

A chance to prove they can: Inclusion Cheer gives otherly abled kids their own platform

Oct 30, 2019 03:35PM ● By Mark Jackson

Coach Chelsea leads a performance at a football game. (Photo by Nick Drake/Athletic Images)

By Mark Jackson | [email protected]

Sometimes an inspiring idea raises goosebumps on your arms—an electric idea you feel might just change your world. 

Chelsea Lopez experienced that feeling when, in April 2019, she scrolled by a 30-second Facebook video of a tiny cheer team entirely made up special education students. 

“Could this really happen?” she wondered. 

Lopez was a cheerleader herself before graduating two years ago. Now a special education instructional assistant, she has volunteered with otherly abled individuals for as long as she can remember. 

Cheerleading encouraged shy and reserved Lopez out of her bubble and gave her confidence.

 Thanks to the video, she wondered what cheer could do for her special-ed students. 

“If I could make cheerleading be for them what it was for me — that would be amazing,” she said. 

After she posted her idea in a Herriman community Facebook page, Lopez was overwhelmed with encouraging responses and decided to found and coach a cheer team. 

Soon, through her Facebook post, Lopez had another coach and partner: Kyleigh Billings. 

Billings was a former competitive cheer athlete and has a son who is on the autism spectrum.  

They began Inclusion Cheer in April with six cheer athletes. Now, just five months later, Inclusion Cheer has 30 cheerleaders.

The program is transforming the lives of other-abled children and everyone who experiences the program. 

Olivia, a 13-year-old cheerleader, has been a part of Inclusion Cheer from the beginning.

Olivia experienced brain trauma as a result of abuse before being adopted at the age of 3. She experiences spatial delays and gravitates toward children who are 4 or 5 years old. 

However, Inclusion Cheer has transformed her confidence. She excels at copying others’ movements, meaning she can quickly adapt to new performance routines. 

Olivia’s personality is quirky and expressive (she prefers bright red shoes). She relishes the opportunity to wear a team uniform and truly be a cheerleader. 

“She’s really opened up; she’s a different person when she’s here,” said her mother, Melissa Heiner. “She always says she’s nervous to perform, but then she always seems completely unafraid.” 

Heiner proudly points to where Olivia is in the group of kids, putting her own stamp on the warm-up routine. For a moment, she just watches her daughter dancing freely. 

Raising a child with special needs is often an isolating experience. However, Inclusion Cheer gives parents like Heiner a community. 

“If you have questions, there are people here who relate,” she said. “They’re don’t just say they understand; they really do.” 

Parent Lisa Pauly is a Head of Delegation for Special Olympics Utah. She supported Inclusion Cheer from the very beginning but was uncertain that her son, Davis, who has been diagnosed with nonverbal autism from age 3, would enjoy being a cheerleader. 

However, the first time Davis came to an Inclusion Cheer practice, “He lit up like a rocket,” she said. 

Almost immediately after receiving a round of shots at the age of three, the once-verbal Davis lost all speech. 

However, after a year in Special Olympics, and five months of practice with Inclusion Cheer, Davis is beginning to speak again. His tracking skills and noise threshold have improved. 

Inclusion Cheer has given Davis a voice in another way, and revealed an entirely new side of him to his mother. 

“I had no idea he needed to show people he’s excited about what they’re doing,” Pauly said. “For the most part, people are cheerleading him. But now he gets to turn around and encourage others.”

For the kids in Inclusion Cheer, confidence in their ability to bring value to others continues past performing. 

Every week, Lopez and Billings see their team practice and perform complex, full-length cheer routines.

“They aren’t doing just a little 15-second routine,” Lopez said. “They’re doing everything a high school cheer team does. They have to do it differently sometimes, but they get it done.”

“[Inclusion Cheer] gives them the chance to prove that they can do everything anyone else can,” Billings said. 

Inclusion Cheer keeps expanding past Lopez and Billings’ wildest expectations as they receive more and more positive responses and invitations to perform. 

A sister team is beginning in Idaho, and Inclusion Cheer is becoming a nonprofit organization. With 501(c)(3) status, chapters could soon appear across the country. 

Inclusion Cheer is looking for volunteers. Message Billings at 385-444-8700 to find out about weekly volunteer opportunities. Contact Lopez at 801-554-5785. Follow the team on Instagram: @inclusion_cheer, and on Facebook: @inclusioncheerutah