There are several students at Leesville’s high school, middle school, and elementary school with special needs. Unlike several schools in the area, Leesville has specialized classrooms and certified teachers to help aid students with special needs through their educational years. In addition, there are several programs for high school students to interact and reach out to those special needs students in younger grade levels. One of the most distinguished of these programs is the Special Ed Cheer Team.
The program first started back in March of 2016, created by Ashley Van Slyck, Leesville Alum, in correspondence with Christine Killela and Elizabeth White, Special Education Program teachers. Van Slyck recognized that other schools had a special needs cheer team and wanted to bring one to Leesville. They named the new addition to the LRHS cheer team “Heart of the Pride”.
“The first year was kind of unknown. It was unknown if there would be any interest and then once there was interest, it was unknown how the students would react in front of thousands and thousands of people. Would they remember the routine? Would they get frightened? But they really stepped up to the plate [during competition] and they were fabulous… They really enjoyed it and the varsity cheerleaders were very supportive, as was the administration,” said Killela.
When the program was first created, Van Sylck wasn’t sure of it’s permanence at Leesville, but hoped that through the upkeep of her fellow teammates the club would continue even after she graduated. Today– nearly two years later– the program still remains and has evolved to function its best for both the cheer team and the Heart of the Pride.
Once the families of special needs children found out about the program, Killela said, “The families were thrilled because they never thought this was an opportunity that their son or daughter would ever have. It’s also supported our students buying into the rest of the school. Rather than feeling ostracized, they feel included.”
To help carry down the tradition, Van Slyck provided her teammates that planned on continuing the lion hearts club with some note with procedures and basic practice rundowns. Because of this, members say that the program hasn’t evolved a great deal due to it’s already dynamic operation. However, the addition of cheer palms for the Heart of the Pride to practice and perform with was a new asset that they didn’t originally have until this year.
A usual SPEC– or special ed cheer– practice typically consists of the Leesville cheerleaders leading the special needs students through motions, words for routines, and their stunts. Very similarly to the high school cheerleaders, the Heart of the Pride are also training and preparing a routine for the Wake County Cheer Competition that is traditionally held at the end of January.
In the early days of the program, there were only ten special needs students that participated. Since then, 17 students have become a part of the Heart of the Pride cheer team, nearly doubling in size. Likewise, a small group of the varsity cheerleaders used to be the only volunteers at practices but since then, both JV and varsity cheer teams have the opportunity to work with the special needs students.
The cheer team and students with special needs meet during smart lunch in the main gym every Monday during B lunch to practice and rehearse. Volunteering at a SPEC practice is optional for Leesville’s cheerleaders, yet many still choose to participate in helping with the program and look forward to the practices.
“[My favorite part about it is] getting to know the kids. They’re really funny, they’re fun to be around and they make my day… being around them, seeing them smile at competition, and just giving them something to look forward to,” said Kristin Greene, junior and leader of the Heart of the Pride cheer team.
Jasmine Jenkins, junior and one of Greene’s fellow volunteers at the SPEC practices, said, “My favorite part about it is interacting with the kids because they’re just very joyful and excited to do it. It’s exciting to us that they’re excited. It just brings joy to my heart seeing the kids smile and seeing them happy doing something that I also enjoy doing.”
The club is not only beneficial for the special needs students and the cheerleading team, but also for all Leesville students, teachers, and administration. Students with disabilities are– unfortunately — often misconceived by others in their community. The Heart of the Pride cheer team has incorporated the students with special needs into the Leesville community, including them and making them more understood over the past two years.
“I hope I’m one of their biggest cheerleaders, and I never underestimate the abilities they have or at least I like to think I don’t, so the thing I like the most about this whole thing is that they get to show other people their abilities rather than their disabilities,” said Killela.