Special-needs cheer teams have had a prominent place in the heart of a Columbus East High School cheerleader. Now they have a significant place in her life and the community.

Cassie McDonald created a local special needs cheerleading team, the Royalty Angels, for her senior project.

They performed Jan. 21 at Super Saturday — the culminating event of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.’s Elementary Basketball League, which features the girls and boys semifinals and title games, and the cheerleading competition.

McDonald has been cheerleading for seven years and competing for three. McDonald said she remembers getting emotional at competitions while special needs cheer teams from other schools performed.

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In her senior project letter, McDonald wrote that through cheerleading she learned the life skills of teamwork, sacrifice and perseverance, and wanted to pass on these values to others.

“Given the reality that there are not many opportunities for children with special needs to participate in sports in my town of Columbus, Indiana, I have started the first ever special needs competitive cheerleading team in Columbus called the Royalty Angels so that local children with special needs might discover the same passion for cheer as I did,” McDonald wrote.

Spreading the word about the team was easy, as McDonald already knew some students at Smith Elementary who were interested in participating because her mom, Missy Butiste, is a speech therapist at the school. McDonald’s callout to join was met with enthusiasm from students all over the community.

“A lot of kids jumped at the opportunity,” McDonald said.

The Royalty Angels team includes six elementary students — McKinsey Cox, A.J. Hughes, Jordan Jimenez, Avery Kleinert, Cherokee Peden and Sophia Robbins — but it is open to all ages.

“Cheerleading is so much fun, and I like being able to learn new things like my somersault,” Cherokee said. “I want to be a cheerleader forever, and maybe I can learn more things like the little girls do. I love Cassie, and she helps me so much.”

The other Angels expressed similar happiness. A.J. called cheerleading her favorite sport and Avery said cheer makes her “so happy.” Avery’s mother, Amy, added that it was likely she would cheer for years to come.

The Angels practice every Sunday afternoon. They will perform twice more this school year, Feb. 25 in Louisville and April 8 in Cincinnati. But whether it is practice or a performance in front of a crowd, the students have a blast.

McDonald said it’s difficult to pick one thing as her favorite part of the team, but the new friendships she has made would be at the top.

“It just shows them that they are not alone, and it has been a blessing to see them make relationships with each other through being on a team together,” McDonald said.

McDonald also set out to raise enough funds to cover monthly tuition and gym fees, uniform costs, U.S. All-Star Federation registration and possible competition fees so that the students’ parents wouldn’t have to open their wallets for their children participate. With the help of local businesses, McDonald has raised $4,443.13 so far, but she is still hoping to raise money to provide practice equipment, hold a banquet for the Angels and have some funds to leave for next year.

“It is enough for this year, but I would still love to have an amazing end-of-the-year banquet for the well-deserving athletes,” McDonald said.

She said she hopes that the team that began as a senior project and grew into something much bigger will continue. Her mentor, Brittany Carpenter, was confident that the program would run for many seasons, and fellow Angels coach Kristen Sutton said she was happy to see the success of this year.

“Cassie has started something bigger than a senior project; she has brought our community together and provided a positive opportunity for these kids,” Sutton said. “She’s instilled trust, leadership, helped them perfect skills and learn new ones they thought they couldn’t do.”

After high school, McDonald intends to major in health care and business the Butler University’s Health Sciences program. She hopes to become a pediatric physician’s assistant so she can work with children on a daily basis.

How to help

Donations still are being accepted to cover the costs of the Royalty Angels, a special-needs cheerleading team in Columbus. If interested, donations can be made online at gofundme.com/2jnqwhg or checks can be made payable to the Columbus East Bookstore with Cassie McDonald Senior Project in the memo line.

Checks or money orders should be mailed to Columbus East High School Bookstore, 230 S. Marr Road, Columbus, Indiana 47201.

For further information on the team, visit Royalty Athletix LLC on Facebook.

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Kaitlyn Evener is an editorial assistant for The Republic. She can be reached at kevener@therepublic.com or 812-379-5633.