Royalty Athletix of Columbus calls one of its competitive cheerleading squads the special-needs Angels.
Brittany Carpenter, the Royalty Athletix co-owner and mentor who launched the group three years ago, understands that perhaps the most special need of the members of this nine-member squad is simple: The desire and the need to be like any other cheerleader, despite challenges such as Down syndrome, autism and other disabilities.
“The whole point of all this is to give them a chance to do almost all the same stuff that other cheerleaders do,” said head coach Summer Fateley, a Columbus East High School varsity cheerleader.
So under the watchful eyes of people such as Carpenter and Fateley, the youngsters — ages 7 to 13 — kick, jump, shout, tumble, turn careful cartwheels and even climb upon modified pyramids with a strong support system, including people who form the base of the pyramid and several spotters all around them just for extra safety.
They exhibit a considerable amount of joy just for the chance to participate. But they also compete to energetic, hip-hop music mixes at five to seven cheerleading events per season. Those events often unfold in front of several thousand fans and followers in places such as Broadbent Arena in Louisville, Kentucky, where the Angels will perform Feb. 24 along with about 100 other teams.
“Not only does a lot of this activity help them physically, but the team feeling helps them socially, and in school,” said Carpenter, who has been involved in cheerleading since third grade. “It has given them a strong sense of being part of something. And it has brought them a sense of empowerment.”
Carpenter and parents say several of the team members have dramatically improved in their schoolwork. And at least one member with autism has dramatically altered her behavior since she began with the Angels. No longer does the preteen inappropriately try to physically vent her anger and frustration on her mother, who was at a desperate loss on how to help the girl before the family discovered the Angels.
Moreover, the Angels are part of Royalty’s Christian foundation, undergirding all that the leaders do with the message that God dearly loves these Angels just as they are. The 29-year-old Carpenter mixes a college business degree with specialized training through the United States All Star Federation, a cheerleading governing body, to work with disabled students.
The chipper, enthusiastic leader talked recently about the importance of giving back to her community to do such work. But after gentle prodding, her heart finally rose to the surface of the conversation. Carpenter’s eyes filled with tears as she told of feeling called by God as a teenager to help young people who face adversity.
She watched her younger sister, Abbie Brown, struggle with a rare form of childhood cancer and die in 2003. That was at age 12 after receiving care at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
“At Riley, you see these kids go through all kinds of stuff,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “So many of them are sick and don’t have anything (they can do). I originally wanted to be a nurse. But then I realized I couldn’t do that because it brings back too many (painful) memories of Abbie. But the one thing I knew I always loved was cheerleading.”
Parents say one thing the students love is Carpenter. And true to the squad’s name, they also love watching over one another a bit like a guardian angel.
At a recent practice, 12-year-old Mackenzi Dibble found teammate Cherokee Peden and delivered a firm message to her friend by shaking her finger for added emphasis. Peden at times has dealt with dozens of seizures per day because of a brain disorder from birth, so Dibble issued an upbeat proclamation.
“No more seizures,” Dibble said to her buddy.
Carpenter mentioned that the Angels are especially significant since only about three teams out of 50 at regional competitions — usually involving squads from Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky — are special needs.
Besides Sunday afternoon run-throughs of routines, Carpenter also works individually without the distractions of regular practice with several of the Angels during the week. They work on physical skills such as smooth, gymnastics-style rolls.
Some team members initially were worried when Carpenter suggested that they could even do conservative, modified pyramids.
“I can’t do this,” one girl first complained to Carpenter about learning a full cartwheel. “I might die.”
Carpenter laughed, but understood the student’s honest and serious trepidation.
“I promise that you won’t die,” Carpenter assured her.
In fact, students seem to be living more confidently than ever, according to family members.
Besides the opportunity the Angels gives team members, parents are developing a sense of camaraderie of their own.
Many of the moms and dads have struggled to find others who can relate to their stresses, responsibilities, fears and frustrations in having a youngster with a disability — one that keeps many of their children and teens out of a number of childhood activities.
“For the parents, it’s a support system,” said Terri Robbins, whose 12-year-old daughter Sophia is a squad member.
In fact, the experience with the Angels has been so dramatic for Sophia that the previously mostly-nonverbal youngster ran to Royalty office manager Shirley Elgar, Carpenter’s grandmother, hugged her tightly and cried out, “Mamaw!” the name all the youngsters use for the nurturing woman.
Elgar’s husband, Larry Elgar, who once donated chunks of his free time to such activities as local youth boxing, beams over such stories.
“They’re really accomplishing something here,” he said.
Carpenter puts it another way as she looks out of her office to see the Angels excitedly preparing for practice.
“This,” she said, “is absolutely life-changing for them.”
Purpose: To give young people facing challenges such as Down syndrome, autism and other disabilities an outlet to be part of a competitive cheerleading squad.
Current squad members: Nine.
Practices: From 4:15 to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Location: Royalty Athletix gym, 1622 Southpark Court in Columbus.
Competitions or community events: Five to seven per season. The season normally runs from May through March.
Cost per team member: Royalty accepts corporate sponsorships and other donations so Angels’ parents can be free of expenses.
For more information: Call 812-799-3132, send an email to Brittany Carpenter at email@example.com or visit the website at royaltyathletix.net.
Nick Doty is in the midst of his Columbus East High School senior project to raise $7,000 by the end of April for the Royalty Athletix special-needs Angels cheerleading squad to cover seasonal costs such as uniforms, competition entry fees and such. That’s important since many of the parents of the disabled youngsters face substantial costs for medical care ranging from physical therapy to multiple surgeries.
The campaign so far has raised nearly $3,000.
Checks can be sent to the Columbus East bookstore (with the Angels and Nick Doty’s senior project noted in the memo line) at 230 S. Marr Road, Columbus, IN 47201.
“Not only does a lot of this activity help them physically, but the team feeling helps them socially, and in school.”
— Brittany Carpenter, Royalty Athletix co-owner and mentor for the special-needs Angels cheer team