Neuqua Valley's Cheer with a Peer gets special-needs students on the field
There will be a new kind of energy coming from the home-team sideline at Friday's Neuqua Valley High School football game against Naperville North that provides some extra school spirit powered by inclusion.
That's because roughly 10 girls and boys with special needs will be standing among the team of 19 varsity cheerleaders, clapping and cheering on the Wildcats.
During the Naperville school's first Cheer with a Peer night, the students with special needs and varsity cheer squad will don the same yellow T-shirts and shout the same chants during the first half in an activity designed to pump up both students with disabilities and the crowd.
"There's nothing better than being in action on the field," said senior cheerleader Adreanne Nelson.
In Peer Partners, participants assist students during adaptive PE classes, and in Best Buddies, club members spend time after school with special-needs peers, doing typical teen things such as going to movies and getting ice cream.
"It's awesome to put cheer and that together," Nelson said about her involvement with students with special needs. "They have a lot of fun."
Even the practices for Cheer with a Peer brought out enthusiasm from all involved -- including at least six boys with special needs. The group circled up for its third and final practice Wednesday to review how to line up at the beginning of the game and to learn a special cheer to do after the first quarter ends.
"Being in a circle helps a lot," Nelson said. "We go over the words first and take it really slow and they catch on."
Chants of "Cats, get tough! Let's go!" and "Go, Cats, go!" reverberated off the walls and blue floor pads of the auxiliary gym at the school's Kathryn Birkett Center for freshmen as the Cheer with a Peer squad perfected its moves. Cheerleaders and peers practiced a basic stunt to lift a few girls off the ground, and several cheerleaders demonstrated a "ripple" of back flips completed one after another.
"This is a great idea because as Neuqua Valley cheerleaders, we're not only leading spirit," said Brandon McGhee, who coaches the varsity team along with Kathy Tichelbaut, "but we're the ambassadors for the school."
In her dual role as cheerleader/ambassador, Nelson said she wanted to find a way to include her friends from Peer Partners and Best Buddies in the classic excitement of Friday-night football.
"It teaches our kids how to reach out," McGhee said, "and how to deal with kids who may not have the same needs as them."
Several cheerleaders will partner one-on-one with special-needs participants to remind them of the words, claps, jumps and gestures involved in each effort to excite the Wildcat crowd.
Sophomore Daniella Caracci followed along closely during Wednesday's practice and even led a few cheers of her own, clapping as students took turns inside the circle to demonstrate components of routines.
"I love the cheerleaders," Daniella said. "I like to hear them."
The game against Naperville North, which begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Neuqua, 2360 95th St., Naperville, will be the only time this season special-needs students join with cheerleaders to lift spirits along the sidelines. But Nelson said she hopes the event can become an annual tradition to boost school pride and inclusion of students with differing abilities.
"How happy they are," Nelson said. "It makes my day."