Fans at Harrison High School’s basketball games may have seen some new stars on the court this season.
These exceptional athletes are part of the Hoya Squad, an inclusive cheer team that blends members of the main cheer squad with cheerleaders who have special needs, and they have won the hearts of their teachers, community and fellow cheerleaders.
The idea for the squad, which started this school year, formed in the hearts of two Harrison cheerleaders.
Sophomores Lily and Quinn saw Hillgrove High’s inclusive cheer team at a competition and began hatching a plan to create the same opportunity at Harrison.
“We would have time periods where we would talk with each other and just brainstorm, and we wrote down in my notebook everything that we wanted,” Quinn said.
One of the first steps was to recruit the teacher they knew would be the perfect sponsor — basketball cheer coach Melissa Churchill, who had experience with special needs students.
“We have seen her with the other special needs kids, and we just knew immediately that she was the person that was right to help us,” Quinn said.
“We actually weren’t 100% sure that we could make it happen this season because we approached [Churchill] so late,” she said. “She was super-enthusiastic to help us with it, and we got to make it happen this year, which was amazing.”
Watching their children cheer has warmed the hearts of the Harrison parents.
“It has been wonderful for my daughter, Laney,” mom Kim Barfield said. “To have something special for her to be a part of … and just to go down the hall and kids know who she is, it’s just really made her feel a part of something special.”
Barfield praised Churchill for making the Hoya Squad experiences handicap-accessible and inclusive. For example, several cheerleaders sit on the floor next to Laney so she doesn’t feel separated when the other cheerleaders sit in the bleachers.
The squad has become an important part of Laney’s life, according to her mom.
“She talks about the whole squad all the time,” she said. “When you have special needs, it can be kind of isolating because your life’s just different. You can’t just go participate in things that a lot of the other kids can do, so the [squad has] just been a part where she has her own activity.”
When the squad began, each member of the main cheer team chose a special needs cheerleader as her buddy.
“They are now best friends,” Churchill said. “I love seeing them together.”
The coach also praised the cheerleaders, who jumped at the chance to serve as buddies.
“These girls, they’ve included the other girls that haven’t been able to be a part of the high school community in terms of sports and cheerleading,” Churchill said. “It’s just been awesome to watch them include the others that do have some type of disability and make them feel that they are a part of the Hoya community.”
Watching the girls cheer in front of fans and fellow students and hearing their names announced over the loudspeaker have been life-changing experiences for the parents, cheerleaders and Churchill.
“They’ve really changed my heart,” the coach said. “They have just cheered their hearts out, and it’s just been so amazing watching the student body give [the squad] accolades and tell them how good they did.”
The cheerleaders saw how successful the squad’s season was and want to keep that success going.
“I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned is that your ideas can become positive impact on other people,” Lily said. “It was just an idea in our heads, and getting to see not only the girls have fun with their parents [but getting] to go to an event that’s centered around them has been super-positively impactful.”
The success of the cheerleaders and their coach is no surprise to their principal, Ashlynn Campbell.
“The Hoya Squad is a great example of the many good things that take place at Harrison and how our students support one another,” she said. “Being a Hoya means believing in something bigger than yourself, and this is the perfect example.”
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