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Disabled Girls Find New Destiny in Cheerleading

Young people with special needs are often looked at differently. People see what they cannot do.

They often have few opportunities to play in sports or participate in social activities, and sometimes it is hard to make friends. As VOA's June Soh reports, some disabled girls are making friends and developing a sense of belonging by cheerleadering. Melinda Smith narrates the story.

Announcer: "Let's give a big welcome to the Dream Allstars' Destiny."

It is an exciting moment for the girls. These girls may not perform perfect cheerleading moves, but it is a proud moment for them.

They are Destiny, a team of cheerleaders with special needs [disabilities].

The girls, age seven to 15, are cheering at their first major sports event- a college basketball game at George Mason University in Virginia.

Parent Paula Kearney says initially she had reservations about her daughter Clare participation, but not anymore. "It has been very exciting. I wasn't sure how Clare was going to do. But she handled it very well. So I was pleased," she said.

Paula Kearney's daughter, 13-year-old Clare, has autism and Down syndrome.

The sport seems to be a perfect motivator, Kearney says, "It has been hard to find something that she can participate in. But the girls have welcomed her and opened (their) arms."

The Destiny team started about a year and a half ago after the mother of a girl with disabilities approached Andrea Needle, owner of Dream Allstars gym in Gaithersburg, Maryland.

Needle says the gym is a labor of love, "Having children in cheerleading myself, I have seen the great benefits my kids have gotten from it in terms of their self-esteem, confidence and bonds of friendship they formed. So when I was approached about providing that to other children, I was absolutely thrilled to do it," she said.

Since then a goodwill enterprise has formed. There is no cost for the families. Needle donates the gym space, time and uniforms for the children. The coach, Karen Mason, is donating her Saturday mornings too.

Needle adds, " A lot of the families with special needs kids really face financial hardship in caring for their children and their various therapies and medical costs."

The parents have noticed benefits that go beyond the gym. They say the experience has been life changing for the children. Parent Jennifer Zaranis adds, "My daughter, Tiffany had anti-depressants before she came here. She was really depressed. Since she has been in this program and has built her self-esteem, she is much more happier now."

Parent, Jack Huntington, says it has created a social butterfly of his daughter Kylie. "Kylie was always on the sidelines asking when is her turn and when she can ever play and she gets to participate. Now it is something that is entirely Kylie's. And she is very happy about it," he said.

The team is part of a growing grass-root effort to create more activities outside of school for children with physical and intellectual disabilities. The U.S. All Star Federation, an umbrella organization for Cheer and Dance Teams, says special needs teams have more than doubled to 160 in 34 states across the nation in the past year.

"They are really nice to me that if I make a mistake they don't laugh at me. They are like, try again don't give up," says Tiffany Roberts, Developmental Disability and Epilepsy

As 12-year-old Tiffany Roberts discovered, the girls have found belonging and friendship, which the parents say has been missing in their lives.

And they say the best part of the program is creating a place for the children where they know they are accepted and loved.