Project UNIFY Cheerleading a Big Hit at Lansing Everett

By Amy Robinson, Everett High School Teacher and Special Olympics Project UNIFY Liaison

Over and over, I define Project UNIFY as "a program that uses sports and education to activate young people to develop tolerant and inclusive school environments." By the end of that definition, people's eyes start to glaze over. So, from now on, as I define Project UNIFY I will simply use the Everett cheerleaders as an example of what the program is all about.

The Everett cheerleaders and their coach Angela Jackson embraced six of Everett's Special Olympics athletes who wanted to be part of the cheerleading team. Every week for over a month, Iliana, Loretta, Amanda, Misty, Mariah, and Carson attended practice after school to learn a routine to perform at a JV basketball game and at the winter homecoming pep rally. The cheerleaders dedicated hours of their time, energy, and love to our Special Olympics athletes at these practices.

The first time the athletes and the cheerleaders performed together in front of a crowd was at a JV basketball game. The cheerleaders wore their Project UNIFY T-shirts and allowed the athletes to shine while wearing the official cheerleading uniforms and holding the silver pompoms. Their halftime performance went better than anyone could have expected. When the routine was over, those six girls' excitement and pure joy of simply being included and participating with their peers was absolutely overwhelming.

The Everett cheerleaders did not hesitate to perform with the Special Olympics athletes in front of the entire school at the pep rally.  Because this was the first school-wide Project UNIFY event, I was a little nervous as to how the student body would receive the athletes. In preparation, I sent out an email and lesson plan about the R-word for all Everett staff to complete with their general education students. Project UNIFY leaders also encouraged students to sign the R-word pledge during lunches the week before the pep rally. Finally (after a snow day postponement), the day of the pep rally arrived.  As the cheerleaders' dance and routine ended, and Iliana, Loretta, Amanda, Misty, Mariah, and Carson took the floor to perform their chant and precision drill with the team, the entire crowd erupted into applause. It was the proudest moment of my career.

The Everett cheerleaders set the standard for accepting and respecting students with special needs. The Unified cheerleading team plans to perform again at the 2014 winter homecoming pep assembly, this time with twelve athletes participating.