Special Twist Cheerleading: Something to Cheer about!
We, as parents, are often times faced with unique decisions about how to involve our children in activities that are best suited, or tailored, to their needs. Does this activity provide any additional benefit to them? Does it also provide socialization, potential friendships, or simple contribution to their sense of being fun? Well, we would like to introduce you, our readers, to Special Twist Cheerleading Squad. Based in Georgia, you might be surprised to find out who runs it, why it was started, and what you might do to get the program started in your area. We had an opportunity to have a “Q and A” and trust you find the information informative, inspiring, and motivating.
Welcome Stacy Van Dyke: Can you tell us a little about yourself, family etc?
Well this isn’t about me, but, I am a married mother of 2 great kids, Rachel 15, a freshman at Lambert High School, and Nathanial 17, a senior at South Forsyth HS. I travel Monday-Friday as a sales executive with EMU Australia and in my free time, I help Rachel run “Special Twist”.
Do you have a special needs child? I do not have a special needs child.
I do not have a special needs child.
Can you tell us a little about Special Twist and how did it come to be?
Special Twist was founded in 2004 as a community service project by my daughter, Rachel (she was 8 at the time). We are a coed program open to all special needs participants ages 4 and up, with no requirements in ability. We don’t discriminate. Special Twist was developed to provide special needs athletes the opportunity to compete in a sport that would have been otherwise unavailable to them. We still hear from families that they never thought their kids would be able to participate in cheerleading and they didn’t know programs like ours existed. Our goal is to get the word out that programs like ours are available all over the country and to prove to everyone that our athletes can do everything an able bodied kid can. We started the team to compete against other special needs teams across the country at competitions like Cheersport Nationals, but have since expanded to include a new recreational program, “Pep Squad”. The “Special Twist Pep Squad”, under the umbrella of North Metro Miracle League does local community performances including: parades, city council performances, Special Olympic events and cheering for sporting activities like Miracle League, wheelchair basketball and local high school football and basketball games. We have also been invited to cheer at an Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers game.
Our Commitment to each participant:
- We will provide each participant with the opportunity to strive through challenges both physically and mentally.
- We will promote team building.
- We will work on a team and individual basis to learn required skills.
- We will take the initiative to expand the horizons of each individual participant.
- We will provide a safe and exciting environment for the success of our team.
- We will promote and participate in the community.
- We will invite them into our family.
- Most importantly, We will have FUN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Where is Special Twist located?
We are based out of Suwanee, GA, but practice in Alpharetta at SEGA gymnastics. SEGA gymnastics provides us with the facility to practice and we compete as a team with the GA ALLSTARS.
How did you get involved with Special Twist?
My daughter started the program as a way to give back to the community. Being a competitive cheerleader, and having a desire to teach, we felt this was the best way to incorporate her knowledge and her way to give back to those that would be otherwise unable to participate in cheerleading.
How does a special cheerleading team work and where do you cheer?
We cheer at local and national competitions, both in and out of state against other special needs teams. This year we will be taking the team to Chattanooga for Athletic Championships and attending Cheersport Nationals, the largest national in the country held here in Atlanta.
How long is a season?
Our competitive season typically runs from Nov-March. However, we practice year round. What we have learned over the years is that the athletes benefit from the repetitive work to maintain and, hopefully, advance their skills. During the off-season we are able to focus on increasing skills including tumbling and stunting. And, our “Pep Squad” continues to perform at local events.
How long are the practices?
Practices are 2 ½ hours long
How often does the team practice?
Once a week on Sundays
Do you have peers, or “buddies” who assist?
Besides Rachel and myself, my son, Nathanial, has been volunteering with us for 4 years and we have a great team of buddies from GA Allstars.
Is there a cost of fee associated with Cheering?
There are some nominal fees to compete, however we do not charge for our program. It was our commitment that we would provide Special Twist without a fee. We did not want anyone to be turned away due to cost, knowing that families with special needs have other expenses to deal with. We do not do this for money, it is strictly a service we provide. We have also been Blessed with the support of the North Metro Miracle League, GA Allstars, SEGA gymnastics and other sponsors that allow us the opportunity to provide our athletes with the tools they need; either free or at a nominal charge. Fees typically needed are for uniforms, insurance and travel/competition expenses. The competitions we attend do not charge for our team to compete, but families do pay for admission, parking and other small travel expenses during the weekend events.
Does the Special Twist squad get to cheer with a local high school?
We do. Lambert High School, in Suwanee, has taken our team on as their community service project and allows us to cheer with them during the football and basketball season. Rachel cheers freshman sideline for football and is a Varsity Basketball cheerleader at Lambert. A number of GA Allstar cheerleaders are also on their squads.
How would one go about finding a special needs cheerleading squad in their community?
I think the best way is to search the web and Google “special needs cheerleading” in your particular city or state. Many of our teams have Facebook pages and videos on YouTube to view. Another great resource is to call a local competitive cheer gym and ask if they have a team or would be interested in starting one. If they don’t currently have one, it might give them a jumpstart to building one.
How would one go about starting a special needs squad in their area?
Best resource is to look on the USASF.net website under special needs. Bill Presson is an ideal candidate to speak to on this.
Do you have tips or a guide to help a squad starting out?
Develop your goals and have a plan for your start. Will you compete for the first year? Do you want to be active in the community or just compete? Do you have the right amount of volunteers in place to achieve your goals.
Do you have support around you from the community or a gym?
Think about where you will find participants? Most importantly, be prepared for the unexpected and be patient. Adversity will only make you stronger and this will be a new set of challenges you haven’t probably experienced before.
Anything you would like to share?
The program is a commitment… to the families as well as the volunteers. So, everyone involved needs to be prepared. This is a team sport, so every athlete is very important to the success of the program. Whatever their ability, each athlete is a part of the TEAM. Do this from the heart, it will be the most rewarding experience you will ever have. And, ALWAYS BRING TISSUES TO A COMPETITION!!!
What has been the most rewarding part of being involved with Special Twist?
I have a few: 1) Watching the changes in the kids from year to year. For example, we had a young girl named Paige, who, when she started, would sit at practice and bang her head on the floor and cover her ears…she would never participate. My son has been working with her for 2 ½ years and she is now dancing, tumbling, cheering and doing splits all over the place. The change can’t even be described. 2) This year we set a goal with Kaitlin (one of our athletes) to challenge herself to gain the skills needed to be the first (special needs athlete) to make a middle school cheerleading team. She and Rachel worked extra hours, almost daily, to learn the tryout cheers and skills needed to make the Riverwatch Middle School basketball cheerleading team. She Did!!! 3) and probably my favorite…just all the love and inclusion we get from being a part of our athlete’s families. We are one big family.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Probably the biggest challenge is working with the diversity of disabilities. We have children that range from high to low functioning. Children with CP to Downs Syndrome and Autism etc…It is learning how to work and challenge each individual kid to get the best results for growth and development.
Thank you Stacy for what you and your family give to the special needs community and for sharing with us.
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This post originally appeared on our January/February 2011 Magazine