BRISTOL, Tenn. — Lydia Sharrow is a spunky, outgoing teenager who is no different than most girls her age except she developed viral meningitis as an infant that left her with cerebral palsy and developmental delays. But that didn’t stop the 14-year-old from becoming part of the Vance Middle School cheerleading squad.
During the school’s annual Christmas assembly on Dec. 18, Lydia’s wheelchair was decked out with tinsel and she came to life as she and her fellow cheerleaders practiced the squad’s moves to “Jingle Bell Rock.”
Lydia is the first special needs student to be involved in the squad and though she doesn’t talk much it’s obvious that she loves to cheer.
The moment the girls gathered on the basketball court and Lydia was rolled to her place with the team her face lit up and she became very animated.
Lydia’s mom, Betsy Sharrow, said her daughter doesn’t know all of the gestures or words to the cheers, but it doesn’t matter.
“Look at her — she’s happy,” Betsy Sharrow said. “She loves people and she’s full of energy. When I thought about who she is and what she likes to do I thought cheerleading might be a good fit — and I’m finding that to be very true.”
In fact, she had a difficult time holding back tears as she spoke of the special bond between her daughter and the girls on the squad.
“When Lydia first became a part of the team I didn’t really talk to any of the girls about her disabilities,” she said. “We would show up to practice and I would push Lydia’s chair between two of them. Every day, I would position her between different girls and Lydia would ask their name. When they answered, her usual response was, ‘I like that name,’ — it was her own way of breaking the ice.”
Sharrow said the girls started asking her a lot of questions about Lydia and as their understanding of her disabilities grew so did their friendships.
“The adults stepped back and let the friendships form naturally,” she said. “The bond between Lydia and the girls is not forced or fake — they have true friendships. They help her with many tasks but they don’t consider it work — they are simply helping their friend.”
Regan Stallcup, the special education teacher at Vance, said she has watched her students and the student body become more accepting.
“It means a lot to my students when they come to a function and they see one of their classmates involved in something like cheerleading,” Stallcup said. “We are challenged on a daily basis to try and incorporate the special education class into the student body. Having Lydia involved in such a visible way has helped others to see our kids as those who have feelings. They love, hurt, enjoy things just like everyone else.”
Ashley Shaffer, the assistant cheerleading coach and educational assistant for the special education class, said having Lydia on the squad was eye-opening.
“It’s amazing to watch everyone involved witness the transformation in the way the student body interacts with the special education class. Having Lydia on the squad has seemed to have caused the special education class to be more involved in school functions — which in turn helps the general student body to see that the special needs students are really not much different than them,” she said.
Sharrow shared that the students were not the only ones who were changed by Lydia being on the squad. She held back tears as she told of how her perception of middle school cheerleaders was challenged when she watched the girls interact with her daughter.
“Most middle school cheerleaders have the reputation of being the mean girls,” she said. “When I first started bringing Lydia to the practices that was a very real concern. I didn’t know how the girls would react to or treat Lydia — but I found out very quickly the girls on the Vance squad are not anything like the stereotype. By the end of football season, they were getting her out of her wheelchair and taking her to the mat to help her stretch during practice. They would take her into small groups and work with her. They have been genuinely accepting of her and it transcends over to the school day. They speak to her when they are in the lunch room and in halls. They have touched my heart and I am grateful to them.”
The girls on the squad have also had some of their misconceptions changed about what special needs children are like.
Brianna Campbell said Lydia is not ‘the special needs girl’ she’s a member of the team.
“The whole squad noticed that Lydia really enjoyed cheering and we thought it was a great idea to have her on the squad,” Campbell said. “She cheers at all the games with us and holds all of the signs. It’s not hard, she’s one of us.”
Audreyana Chy and Alexus Brunette both said before Lydia was on the squad they didn’t realize how “normal” special needs kids are.
“Before Lydia was on the squad I didn’t have any interaction with anyone in the special needs classes,” Audreyana said. “Since Lydia has been on the team, I’ve seen that they are really no different than we are. We all have things we want to do.”
Alexus summed up the experience.
“It really opened my eyes to see that everybody has dreams and there is a way for those dreams to come true,” she said. “Lydia is so happy cheering with us I think she’s living a part of her dream.”