COLUMBIA CITY — The Whitley County Dazzlers competed and received first place in its division during the first-ever national unified cheer competition on July 21. In 1968, Chicago hosted the first Special Olympics Summer Games and as a part of its 50-year anniversary this year, the city hosted it once more at Soldier Field.
The Dazzlers are a special needs cheerleading team in Whitley County formed in November 2011 with only five members. The team has since grown to 25 members, ranging in age from 6-26 years old. It meets once a week to practice motions, cheers and stunts, and then performs at basketball games and competitions in the winter. The squad is able to function at nearly no cost to team members through donations from the Whitely County Community Foundation, Anthony Wayne Services Foundation and members of the community.
Everyone on the Dazzlers has either physical or cognitive disabilities. One child is only one of 19 people ever diagnosed with GLUT1, while some others are in wheelchairs. Routines are designed around the members’ disabilities and capabilities and many times wheelchairs become a great mechanism for building a pyramid. Volunteers of all ages stand on the sides and help the team during stunts or difficult parts of the routine.
As part of a movement to mix people of all abilities together, the Dazzlers were required to enter into the Special Olympics as a unified team. This means that during the competition, the helpers were fully a part of the routine and not just available for pyramids and building. Unified sports are becoming increasingly popular across the nation to lessen the divide between children with special needs and those without.
Many of the volunteers are the team members’ siblings or become friends with team members. Vanessa Bills, leader of the group and CEO of the Community Foundation of Whitley County, is proud of the way cheer has brought different people together.
“I don’t know if (the volunteers and team members) would have become friends without cheer,” Bills said. “Some of these kids don’t get invited to sleepovers a lot, but they have become friends with each other and have had sleepovers. There has been a lot of growth among the helpers.”
The unified competition was the first time the Dazzlers had volunteers, special needs teammates and non-special needs teammates all working together in a group. The team spent the night in Chicago and had 17 team members compete on Soldier Field. After competing against 10 other teams, the Dazzlers received a gold medal for their cheer, chant and dance routine in the Large Tumble and Build category.
Inspired by the Special Olympics experience, the team may grow to have an inclusion squad while also still keeping the team that’s just for special needs.
The Dazzlers will be starting their season this fall after Labor Day and getting new uniforms. Those interested in participating or volunteering can contact Bills at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We don’t turn anybody away,” Bills said. “I can’t even describe what it’s like. I can have a bad day at work…and when I get there, they are just a joy to work with. There’s so much happiness.”