Gathered on the blue springboard at the World Cup Phoenix cheerleading gym in Easton, Pennsylvania, six girls with special needs are preparing for their competition next week.
The girls, dressed in two-piece practice outfits with the words “World Cup” written on them, jogged in a circle around the gym to warm up.
Colleen Kennedy reached for her teammate Brianna Keith’s hand to help her up from the mat. They both have autism, but being a part of the Special Stars team has helped them come out of their shells.
“It means a lot,” Brianna’s grandmother, Judy Greco, told InsideEdition.com as she fought back tears. “She's a nonverbal, autistic child so these are her friends. This is her family.”
Started in 2012, the Special Stars is a special needs cheerleading team that regularly participates in competitions and faces off against children with all levels of ability. The squad is currently made up of six girls from ages 12 to 20 and is part of World Cup Pheonix's larger competition cheerleading organization.
Brianna, Colleen, Grace McKenna (who goes by Gracie), Grace Husek, Georgianna Houck Nolf and Sidney Hall attend practice at the Easton gym on Wednesdays and Sundays as their parents look on through a glass window from the lobby.
For the girls, the community they have built and the skills they have gained through the team are priceless.
Cory Hall, the dad of youngest member of the team, 12-year-old Sidney, said it is incredible to see his daughter blossom and find a sense of belonging. Sidney, who can often be found giving someone a hug, joined the squad just two years ago, but it's made a world of difference.
“It's been incredible to see her growth physically and emotionally, being able to do things that she couldn't do. Now, being part of this team, to see her do full stunts and tumble, it's been amazing to watch,” Hall said. “She's become far more independent, which is also great to see.”
The dad said he initially found the squad after watching a video about them on YouTube.
"What we saw those girls being able to do, it was amazing to see and we wanted Sidney to be part of that," Hall said.
On this particular Sunday practice, a week out from the 2019 Battle of the Boardwalk competition in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the girls are working on fine-tuning their routine. They’ll be competing in the “cheerabilities” section of the tournament, a category specifically for those with special needs.
The team's head coach, 23-year-old Kate Boschell, works with each girl on the stunts they’ll be performing during the routine.
“You’re holding the stunt like this. You gotta hold it like this, OK?” Boschell tells Colleen, showing her how to safely hold Gracie during her stunt.
It is Boschell’s first season as head coach. She was previously a helper for the Special Stars, guiding stunts or leading them into formation.
“Seeing them perform on that mat for the first time in front of all the different teams, that was beyond words because usually I was on that mat, and now I'm on the other side, seeing what my coaches saw,” Boschell told InsideEdition.com. “It's very rewarding, because you helped them get to that point.”
The girls do splits, cartwheels, high-V stunts and more, catered to their level of ability. The coaches slowly push them to go further and do things they haven’t tried before.
“When we first started, she couldn't do a cartwheel,” Colleen’s mom, Cindy Kennedy, said. “She could do a roll, and that was it. And now, she does something called an 'arabesque.' Don't ask. Don't really know what it is, but apparently, she can do it pretty well, so.”
Kennedy said it’s also improved Colleen's social skills and concentration at school.
Colleen, who has been on the squad for seven years, isn’t the only one whose growth has been tremendous.
Gracie, 17, who has autism and just joined the squad this year, has already started tumbling. Brianna, who has been on the squad for several years, also started performing in stunts this year.
“We randomly tried it, she loves it,” Boschell said. “She’d go up in a stunt every time we ask her to.”
Their growth in the sport is just a small portion of what being a part of the squad means to the girls. It’s built their confidence and allowed them to feel included.
“I'm really, really determined as a very determined young lady who has special needs,” Gracie told InsideEdition.com. “When I'm up in the air doing my high V and go, ‘Wee,’ that makes me confident because I know my friends are there with me. My friends are behind me all the way.”
Every week, practice is something the members of the team look forward to.
“I enjoy this team a lot,” Colleen said.
“She thinks of everybody, not only just on this team, but in the entire gym, as her cheer sisters,” Kennedy added. “This is literally her world. I sit here and cry when they even have practice, watching her do what is most important to her in her entire life is my only joy, honestly.”
The parents of the girls know how important it is for their children to have opportunities and an outlet where they can shine.
“A lot of things that other people take for granted, we have to fight for,” Kennedy said. “And I have typical children, so I know the difference. Colleen's the youngest, and I spend a lot more time fighting for things that my other children, it just came naturally for them.”
“We wanna be included in every event,” Colleen added.
On Feb. 2., the girls showed off their routine at a competition in Atlantic City and placed first in their division.
The girls’ coaches said they always turn up their energy on competition day and bring all they’ve got. This time it was no different.
“I get choked up a little bit just like, seeing how hard they've worked and how excited they are to end their routine. And when they hit that final pose, they do it with so much sass and so much proudness. It's a good feeling,” said assistant coach Taylor Cooper.
Hall said his daughter Sidney has really gained a sense of belonging since she joined.
“As a father, I couldn't be more proud of Sidney,” Hall said. “The first time I saw her compete, I was in tears.
"It was a really special moment."
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