Spirit Squad cheers up all the cheerleaders at BHS

Five years ago, Bainbridge High School opened its arms to cheerleaders with special needs by creating the Spirit Squad.

The team is one of four cheerleading teams at BHS. It’s part of Generation Spirit, a federal fund that encourages social media in schools across the country. Since it was founded in Iowa in 2008, Generation Spirit has launched 225 teams in 31 states.

Teams are designed and led by students. Two BHS captains, Holly Beerman and Isabelle McLean, developed routines and helped coach all of the cheerleaders.

Bainbridge’s Spirit Squad originated in 2016 when coach Tawnya Jackson’s daughter, Claire, came up with the idea. Claire joined her elementary school’s “Circle of Friends” organization. He and his friends spend lunch with students with special needs. In addition, he played football with a boy with autism. When Claire noticed that Bainbridge Island didn’t have many clubs for students with special needs, she thought her mother could push for a change.

Jackson reached out to Karen Kilbane, who had a daughter with epilepsy, and called her Generation Spirit. Jackson emailed the BI School District about his interest in creating the program. After receiving approval, Jackson knew the hardest part was yet to come. “The hardest thing in the first year was getting the buy-in of the whole team,” Jackson said. “It’s a matter of educating high school girls about the value of this.”

As soon as the fans boarded the boat, the Spirit Team began. “We have six disabled starters,” Jackson said. “You interact with each student with special needs and a student without special needs, and not as counselors but as a friend.”

The six cheerleaders with special needs started as freshmen while one girl, Ella Arvish, started in seventh grade. “The first year went well,” Jackson said. “The national organization first met with those without special needs and taught us.”

Because high school cheerleaders are between the ages of 14 and 18, they often lack self-control skills. Therefore, the teacher taught the performers how to deal with someone in a wheelchair or with autism. Since then, Jackson has taken over and taught the new Spirit Squad techniques before the start of each season.

After the first year, the Spirit Squad turned from a role into an opportunity. “I didn’t say please be in the Spirit Squad,” Jackson said. “Everyone started applying and wanting to join. There are cheerleaders who may not be the right fit because it requires patience and dedication. If you going out for practice and your friend is there, they can be very upset.”

Once the cheerleaders make it without any particular problem to the team, they are given specific responsibilities. “When one of the captains teaches, they make sure to be very inclusive,” Jackson said. “For example, if I’m a captain, and I’m noticing that one of them has a hard time punching a straight arm, we don’t refer students with special needs. We refer to everyone to be included.”

All fans are allowed to express their opinions. The team will do circle time in practice where they go around and talk about what they like about their day or week. “You don’t know who has the problem, it’s all the same,” Jackson said. “Everyone has something to learn from each other.”

The Spirit of Generations discusses how the program has helped students with special needs do better academically, participate more civically, and achieve higher levels of happiness.

Jackson, who also plays defensive end at BHS, sees his cheerleaders improve every day. “It’s amazing just to watch them walk down the street, they have friends,” Jackson said. “In fact, after each of the graduates, they sob. It is important and meaningful to them to cry. We all cry.”

Jackson has also formed friendships with any interested leader. He goes into their classes to welcome them to school and say goodbye when they leave. “These relationships they have will last forever,” Jackson said. “I have students who continue to interact with children with special needs.”

Non-disabled cheerleaders also enjoy their Spirit Squad experience. “They’ve learned compassion, patience and togetherness,” Jackson said. “Having this empathy and understanding that we are all the same. It was an eye-opener for some of them.”

For the first few seasons, only varsity cheerleaders were allowed on the team. But in recent years it was also opened to small universities.

“I invite the Spirit Squad to perform in front of the seniors during the first quarter of the home football game,” Jackson said. “The performers who are not from the Spirit Group are in front of the student group. After the first quarter, I turn the handicapped out, and JV goes in front of the parents, and all the varsity is in front of the student body.”

Jackson added: “The reason I put the Spirit Squad in front of the parents is because the student body seems to be really loud.” For “some fans, especially with autism, the noise can be very intimidating.”

In addition to cheering national football games, the Spirit Squad also performs in the first quarter of women’s varsity basketball games. The community has been very supportive of the team in previous years.

Jackson did things to make sure the Spirit Squad was still going during the pandemic. He did Zoom exercises since they couldn’t meet together or enjoy sports. Instead, the girls met on their own time and connected.

Spirit Squad looks to stay up as long as possible. But the future is always in doubt. “In order to continue to be successful, we need students with special needs,” Jackson said. “There are only so many in our school district. If all the students graduate, and we don’t have cheerleaders with special needs, the Spirit Squad will stop.”

The other side is if Jackson resigns. Since the Spirit Squad is not in the job description, another teacher is not allowed to install the program. “It’s something I love, and I do it on my own time,” Jackson said. “Maybe I can write it in the job description. If I don’t, you’re at the mercy of the new teacher.”

One thing is certain about the Spirit Squad. “They may have difficulty walking or understanding something,” Jackson said. “But at the end of the day, they all want to be fans.”

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