COEUR d’ALENE — Smiles never left the faces of three Lake City High School cheerleaders during a practice Wednesday afternoon.
Behind those smiles was the knowledge that they are doing something groundbreaking, something that will have a lasting, positive impact on three of their peers, as well as their school community and potentially the community as a whole.
"I love coming here because it makes me feel so happy," said sophomore Jessica Gilmore. "I can be in the worst mood and I’ll look forward to this practice."
Jessica and junior Shelby Beaton, varsity cheerleaders, have teamed with freshman cheerleader Maddianna Morrow to lead a new venture for their school. They're working as volunteer coaches of the All Abilities Cheer squad, a team that gives special needs students an opportunity to share their school spirit and learn what it truly means to be a cheerleader.
"I knew it would be something so cool to give them this team when not a lot of sports can allow them to do what they do," Jessica said. "It’s so cool to give them that gift where they’re able to be like everybody else. I’m going to cry just talking about it."
The inaugural All Abilities squad is small but mighty. The athletes are senior Jake Ragsdale, sophomore Kole Teague and Jim Kinnard, a sophomore who also serves as the spirit leader of Lake City's varsity cheer team.
"They've taught us so much, especially Jim," said LCHS Cheer Coach Crissy Gilmore "He has taught our team so much about patience and celebrating life and family and friends of all abilities."
Gilmore said the idea for the team developed late last year when her cheerleaders were looking for a way to give back to their community.
"The captains decided we wanted to focus on special needs," she said. "In September, we talked to the school to see if there were any kids who wanted to do it."
She said at first, the reception from students was mixed.
"It is a process. Not everybody wants to come up and give them a hug and take the time to connect with them, and that's OK," she said. "But I want them all to respect these other athletes and at least be open to this opportunity to bless these kids and bless our school."
She said the coaches she chose to lead the team — Shelby, Jessica and Maddianna — have an incredible heart for what they're doing.
"They want to give. They love the special needs community," she said. "In this year, with Jim being on the team and incorporating the All Abilities squad, I have seen their hearts soften and the rest of the team has really joined in to celebrate the All Abilities team."
The performances they have done since the team officially began in January have also won over the hearts of the student body.
"The All Abilities team, when they perform, they bring the house down. Everyone in the room is participating," Gilmore said. "They bring the whole spirit of cheer to the forefront. People tell us, 'That was the highlight of my day.' That is the heart of what we're doing."
This special team is the only one of its kind in the area. Shelby said it's something that has changed her life.
"These boys have become more of like, my best friends. We’re a team, but we’re all best friends at the same time," she said. "They’re teaching me a lot. I feel like through this experience, I’ve become more compassionate and patient and overall a kinder person. That’s my favorite part of all this."
"They make me happy," Maddianna said with a smile.
Kole's mom, Dusty Teague of Coeur d'Alene, said when she was approached by Jim's mom, Jann, about Kole possibly joining the team, the answer was "of course, yes, because Kole is a big cheerleader of his own,” she said with a chuckle.
"I think it’s really good experience for everybody, not just the special needs kids," Teague said. "It’s good experience for the peers as well. They’re getting really good experience working with people with all kinds of abilities."
The All Abilities squad is not competitive, so its sole focus is performance. The team will perform at the Idaho High School Dance and Cheer 2018 State Championships in Nampa on Friday. There, they will also join other special needs athletes and volunteers from around the state to create and perform as the Idaho Special Olympics Unified Cheer Team.
Gilmore said the hope is to expand the opportunity for more special and non-special needs youths to work together on a unified cheer team in the future. Students in middle and high school will be welcome to participate.
"Cheer gives these kids an outlet that doesn't look like some of the more competitive sports," she said. "It's such a privilege to have them."
The new cheer season will commence with tryouts in May.
For information, contact Gilmore at firstname.lastname@example.org.