Five years ago, Bainbridge High School opened its arms to cheerleaders who have disabilities by creating Spirit Squad.
The squad is one of four cheer teams at BHS. It is part of Generation Spirit, a nationally recognized nonprofit that is powering social inclusion in schools nationwide. Since being founded in Iowa in 2008, Generation Spirit has launched 225 teams in 31 states.
The teams are student-designed and led. BHS has two captains, Holly Beerman and Isabelle McLean, who create the routines and help coach all the cheerleaders.
Bainbridge’s Spirit Squad originated in 2016 when coach Tawnya Jackson’s daughter, Claire, sparked the idea. Claire was involved in her middle school “Circle of Friends” organization. She and her friends would spend lunch with students with disabilities. In addition, she played football alongside a boy with autism. When Claire noticed Bainbridge Island did not have many clubs for students with disabilities, she thought her mom could push for change.
Jackson reached out to Karen Kilbane, who had a daughter with down syndrome, and she mentioned Generation Spirit. Jackson emailed the BI School District about her interest in creating the program. After getting approval, Jackson knew the toughest part was yet to come. “The hardest thing in the first year was getting the [entire] squad to buy in,” Jackson said. “It was a matter of getting the high school girls to understand the benefits of it.”
Once the cheer team hopped on board, the Spirit Squad began. “We had six starting out with disabilities,” Jackson said. “You pair up each student with a disability with a student who doesn’t have a disability, and they aren’t mentors but instead buddies.”
The six cheerleaders with disabilities started as freshmen while one girl, Ella Arvish, started in seventh grade. “The first year went great,” Jackson said. “The national organization met with me and those without disabilities ahead of time and trained us.”
Since the high school cheerleaders are between ages 14 and 18, they typically do not have behavioral management skills. Therefore, the instructor taught the cheerleaders how to deal with someone in a wheelchair or with autism. Since then, Jackson has taken over and teaches the new Spirit Squad the techniques before each season begins.
After the first year, Spirit Squad turned from a responsibility to a privilege. “I didn’t say please be on the Spirit Squad,” Jackson said. “Everyone began applying and wanted to be on it. There are cheerleaders who may not necessarily be a good fit because it takes patience and dedication. If you don’t show up for practice and your buddy is there, they can get very upset.”
Once cheerleaders without a disability make the squad, they are tasked with certain responsibilities. “When one of the captains teaches, they make sure it’s very inclusive,” Jackson said. “For example, if I was a captain, and I’m noticing that any of them are having difficulties hitting a straight arm, we don’t point it out to the students with disabilities. We point it out to everyone so it’s inclusive.”
All of the cheerleaders are allowed to express themselves. The squad will do circle time at practice where they go around and talk about what they loved about their day or week. “You would never know who has the disability, it’s completely even,” Jackson said. “Everyone has something to learn from each other.”
Generation Spirit discusses how the program has helped students with disabilities perform better academically, engage more civically, and experience higher levels of happiness.
Jackson, who also works security at BHS, notices the improvement of all her cheerleaders every day. “It’s amazing just to watch when they are walking down the hallway, they have friends,” Jackson said. “In fact, when each cheerleader graduates, they sob. It is so important to them and meaningful that they cry. We all cry.”
Jackson has built friendships with every cheerleader too. She goes into their classes to welcome them to school and wish them goodbye when they leave. “These relationships they have will last forever,” Jackson said. “I have students who still keep in contact with students with disabilities.”
Cheerleaders without disabilities also love their experience on Spirit Squad. “They have learned empathy, patience and inclusiveness,” Jackson said. “It’s having this empathy and understanding we are the same. It’s an eye-opener for some of them.”
The first few seasons, varsity cheerleaders were the only ones who were allowed on the team. But in recent years it has been opened up to junior varsity, too.
“I invite the Spirit Squad to cheer in front of the parent section in the first quarter of home football games,” Jackson said. “The cheerleaders not in the Spirit Squad are in front of the student section. After the first quarter, I rotate those with disabilities out, and JV goes in front of the parents, and all of the varsity is in front of the student section.”
Jackson added: “The reason I put the Spirit Squad in front of the parents is that the student section tends to be really loud.” For “some of the cheerleaders, especially with autism, the noise can be very agitating.”
Besides performing at home football games, Spirit Squad performs in the first quarter of home varsity girls basketball games. The community has been very supportive of the squad over the years.
Jackson did things to make sure Spirit Squad kept going during the pandemic. She created Zoom practices since they could not meet in person or cheer at games. Instead, the girls met during their own time and kept in contact.
Spirit Squad looks to stay afloat as long as possible. But the future is always in doubt. “In order for it to continue to be successful, we need students with disabilities,” Jackson said. “We only have so many in our school district. If all of the students graduated, and we had no cheerleaders with disabilities, the Spirit Squad would be shelved.”
Another factor is if Jackson resigns. Since Spirit Squad is not in the job description, so it’s not mandatory for the next coach to incorporate the program. “It is something I am passionate about, and I do it out of my own time,” Jackson said. “I may be able to get it written in the job description. If I don’t, you are at the mercy of the new coach.”
One thing is certain with Spirit Squad. “They may have difficulty walking or understanding something,” Jackson said. “But at the end of the day, they just all want to be cheerleaders.”