By Megan Alley
The Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati Cheer Squad has been earning consistent standing ovations as it tours area high schools, including Milford High School, performing with resident varsity cheerleading squads during halftime at basketball games.
The squad will perform at the West Clermont High School men’s varsity home game against Hughes High School on Jan. 30 at 8 p.m.
Former Cincinnati Ben-Gal Cheerleader Debbie Schroeder, whose 15-year-old daughter has Down syndrome and cheers on the squad, co-founded the team in 2015 with her sister Joanie Elfers, who works for the DSAGC.
“Originally, I just wanted to do it because my daughter has Down syndrome and I always wanted her to be a cheerleader,” Schroeder explained.
Now, what started off as a program to introduce the sport of cheerleading to kids and teens with Down syndrome, with a small clinic and five attendees, has grown to a 21-member squad, including two boys, that has a 10-game performance schedule. The squad also has official uniforms.
“Each year, it grows and grows; it’s really taken off,” Schroeder said, admitting that she can’t bring herself to turn anyone away.
Throughout November, the squad learns a choreographed routine, and then the team performs during halftime at local high school basketball games, alongside the school’s cheerleading squad.
“The biggest thing about this program, as it relates to the work of DSAGC, is the community awareness that it brings,” Schroeder explained. “So, we started this, and then we got the idea to perform at different high schools … so there’s the community awareness with the high school cheerleaders, and they get to be around kids with special needs, and they might not have had that exposure before; they’re all just so sweet and helpful.”
She added, “Then, when we go to the basketball games, there’s tons of people there, and we have people coming up to us saying very touching things, and we always get a standing ovation. So, that part of it, we weren’t expecting, but it’s starting to become the biggest part of it.”
She went on to describe how the program has provided fundamental positives for the squad members.
“I’ve seen their confidence definitely build; kids that came in and didn’t really do much at first, all of the sudden they know the whole dance and they’re doing the whole thing, and you can just tell their confidence in it,” Schroeder said. “It also helps their listening skills; the first practice we have of the year is complete chaos, but by the third practice, they sit and listen to me … it’s also a good form of exercise … and it increases their focus.”
Seventeen-year-old Katie Smith, a 10th grader at Milford High School, has been on the squad for three years.
“I love cheerleading,” Smith said when asked why she joined up.
Previously, Smith was a cheerleader McCormick Elementary in Loveland.
She said that some of the best parts of being on the squad are performing and meeting the members of the resident cheerleading squads.
“I love it,” Smith said.
Julia Sheehan, Smith’s mom, explained the benefits of being on the squad.
“[Katie’s] kind of been a leader on the cheer squad, because she’s the oldest girl cheerleader, and this year has been really good about kind of helping the younger kids learn … so that’s been really fun,” she said. “It’s a family, and we just root each other on, really.”
Sheehan noted that the longer performance schedule has also been a benefit.
“It’s brought so much awareness of our squad, and we’re just getting to be better known,” she said.
In fact, the standing ovations that the squad receives have brought Smith to tears.
“I cried at the end,” Smith added.
Smith encourages anyone thinking about joining the squad to go for it, noting that the coaches and instructors are “great.”
While accolades go out to Schroeder, she explained what coaching the squad has taught her.
“I’ve learned that being perfect doesn’t matter,” she said with an emotional quiver in her voice. “They try their best, and they go out there and they’re so proud of themselves; it’s just so great to see that everything doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just what makes you happy.”
She added, “They’re proud of themselves, but we’re proud of them too … for them to get out and do this is really, really something special; I could do this every weekend, I just love it.”