Twelve-year-old Phoebe Dunleap loves to perform. She also has Down Syndrome, but that doesn’t stop her from soaking up the limelight on stage with her adaptive cheer squad, the Firecrackers.
Comprising seven girls from western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota, the team has come a long way since its inception five years ago. Although they were originally based in Stillwater, the Firecrackers recently made the move to Crowley’s Gymnastics Center in Oakdale, Minn., where they train once a week.
According to Phoebe’s mom, Kym Dunleap of Somerset, cheering is more than just a sport for the squad’s members - it is an opportunity that has changed their lives.
“The team has been transformative for these girls,” Dunleap said. “They started out shy, with hanging heads and shuffling feet, before turning into what they are now: laughing, giggling teenage girls.”
Because the Firecrackers are an exhibition cheer squad, they do not technically compete at All Star competitions. Instead, they perform in front of judges alongside level one and level two cheer squads from high schools and colleges.
“Those squads are unbelievable,” Dunleap said. “They’re doing flips up in the air and building pyramids and climbing on top of each others’ shoulders. It’s amazing to watch.”
Dunleap said that while other adaptive cheer squads sometimes have coaches or parents help the girls during the performance, Firecrackers coach Kelli Beaudry encourages her team to operate independently.
“I too often see people jumping in and ‘helping’ children because they don’t want them to fail,” said Beaudry, who has more than 15 years of experience working in special education classrooms. “Our girls are capable of so much more than I think most people realize. By having our Firecrackers team perform based on their own abilities, no one can take that away from them. No one can downplay their accomplishments.”
Besides encouraging values like responsibility, perseverance and positivity, the team has provided many of its members with an unprecedented opportunity to feel included.
“They go to birthday parties and sleepovers with each other,” Dunleap said. “These are things they don’t get to enjoy with peers at school, because they often don’t get invited. Now, they’re doing all the things their classmates are doing. They’re happy.”
The sense of community fostered by the program has inspired the Firecrackers to reach out to families in the cities surrounding Oakdale. According to Beaudry, anyone under the age of 23 with an adaptive need is welcome to join the team.
The Firecrackers’ season runs from November to February, and Dunleap said the team hopes to expand this year’s performance schedule with visits to middle schools, high schools and possibly the Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota.
“The girls get so much out of this, but there are so many others who can gain from it as well,” Dunleap said. “This is what we’re all about: helping the world learn tolerance and acceptance, one person at a time.”