Special-needs cheer team makes dreams come true

Special-needs cheer team makes dreams come true

TYLER (KYTX) - Making the cheerleading squad is a dream for many young girls, but for a child with physical or developmental disabilities, it's a dream that oftentimes never comes true.

But one unique new cheer team is changing all that.

Team Inspire is the first special-needs cheer team in East Texas.

Eight-year-old Ava Penkilo loves the spotlight, but soon after she was born her parents realized she wasn't developing at the same rate as other kids her age.

"She wasn't reaching milestones when she was first born, so delays early on were not that big of a concern to the pediatrician," Ava's mother, Monica Penkilo, said. "But as the months went on, and she didn't walk until 22 months, really that was one of the biggest trigger times that we knew."

Ava also has what's known as expressive language disorder, making it hard for her to communicate.

"It does keep her from certain activities that she would like to do," Penkilo said. "She loved gymnastics and loved going up to Gym Tyler and participating with her peers, but to be able to be on a competitive cheer team -- though she wanted to do it -- really wasn't an option."

Until now.

For the 25 girls on Team Inspire, this is the first time they've had the chance to be part of a team where all the other kids are just like them, giving girls like Ava -- each with various special needs, from physical handicaps to autism and down syndrome -- a chance to perform and compete.

"It is awesome," Penkilo said. "It just feels so good to know that she has a place where she's accepted, and wanted, and can be herself, and to do something that she's always wanted to do."

And how does Ava feel about the chance to be a cheerleader?

"Super excited!" she said.

Another great thing about Team Inspire is that there is no age limit. Right now, the cheerleaders range in age from six to 22.

Penkilo says she hopes that -- like their name -- the team will inspire other athletic groups to create special-needs teams, too.

"Maybe a dance team, or a football team, or a soccer team, and we start seeing other sports and other things start kicking off special needs teams," she said.

The team will be competing soon at UT Tyler and Tyler Junior College, and in December, they will be performing at AT&T Cowboy's Stadium -- alongside the Dallas Cowboy's cheerleaders.

The team still needs help with uniforms and travel expenses. To donate, stop by Gym Tyler or any Prosperity Bank to donate.


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