COLUMBIA CITY — Whitley County Dazzlers is a special needs cheerleading team in its second season.
Coach Vanessa Bills decided to offer cheerleading to special needs students so they can “experience the uniform.”
The cheerleaders have various disabilities and varying degrees of speech and movement capabilities. Bills said that there are some challenges when working a cheer routine around those handicaps, but the participants grow in confidence and become more vocal and more mobile.
“When I coached cheerleading at high school a while back, I could never get the girls to stop talking,” said Bills. “Now, sometimes I have girls who can’t talk, but when it comes down to it, they are just like other teen girls. They laugh and giggle and talk about boys and clothes.”
Cheerleading routines are set to music and the group moves around in formations and even performs some stunts and lifts.
“To let them feel like they are doing something other cheerleading groups do, helps them feel ‘normal,’”said Bills.
Last year the group performed in local events and this year the number of dates have increased. Bills said that parents wanted to open up opportunities for the group. The team will appear in Fort Wayne and in Columbia City events such as Walk for Autism and the Passages, Inc. annual meeting.
Some of the events take place in Indianapolis. Bills said when she told the group they were going to Indianapolis for a meet, she was enthusiastic about giving the group a bigger venue.
As the cheerleaders rehearse, they are getting exercise and in turn, Bills said that lifts attitudes and gives the participants an overall health benefit.
The other benefit to the Dazzlers organization is the support it provides for parents. Bills said that parents come and watch practices and do the things that normal athletic parents do...”sit in the stands and gab.”
“I think it is good for them to not feel so isolated in the day-to-day stresses that come with their situation. They have formed friendships and I think the practices give them a little bit of a break,” said Bills.
The group is open to newcomers and is free. Bills said that local grants have covered most of the costs for the practice space at the YMCA and uniforms.
Bills said, “We’ve been really lucky to get grants from HANDS and from the Whitley County Community Foundation. However, the more we do, the more money it is going to take. The goal is to keep the costs to a bare minimum. The last thing I want to do is to add more to the plate for parents.”
Any child in grades Kindergarten to 12th can join the group. The degree of special need is not judged. Bills said she welcomes anyone who feels the group might be for them.
“The practices are open for anyone who wants to check it out,” Bills said. “We’ve had many parents and their kids come and watch a few practices to see if it is something they feel comfortable with.”
Bills operates the group with a number of helpers. She said that there is a two-to-one ratio right now, which makes it a safe and comfortable environment for the kids.
Practices are held at the YMCA in Columbia City Saturday from 2 to 3 p.m. For more information, contact Bills at firstname.lastname@example.org  or call the Whitley County Community Foundation at 244-5224.