Squad Goals

Athletes of all abilities find a home at Empire Cheerleading in Benton.

By Dwain Hebda Photography by Matthew Martin

(From left) Empire athletes Ava Chipman, Anna Sparks, India Stewart and Gabriel Watts.

(From left) Empire athletes Ava Chipman, Anna Sparks, India Stewart and Gabriel Watts.

 

When asked why she chose to create a cheer program that included athletes with special needs, Brooke Plack, owner of Empire Cheerleading in Benton, has a ready, simple answer. “So many little girls dream of being a cheerleader one day, especially in this part of the country. You know, we’re in ‘Friday Night Lights’ world,” she said. “Even for our adult athletes, they grew up in a school where [cheerleading] wasn't possible. They never had a chance to do that.”

Plack’s training facility hasn’t been around that long, just three years, and her program catering to athletes with various physical and mental challenges has an even shorter history. But it’s already gained notoriety for its unique format.

“Growing up, I was involved with athletes with special needs,” Plack said. “I went to high school in Bryant and I chartered the first Junior Civitan chapter there. Civitan is a really great organization in Saline County that serves children and adults with special needs. “[Empire] had been open a year, and probably around August of 2015 I just was like, I would really like to do a cheerleading team for athletes with special needs. We’d never done anything like that before.”

Plack posted the date of an interest meeting on Facebook, unsure what sort of response she would get. “I was hoping I’d have, like, four or five people show up; we had a ton of people show up,” she said.

Among the first to join the new program was Cadie Rosenberry, 25, of Bryant. Cadie was born able-bodied and diagnosed with cancer at the age of three. Treatment affected her cognitive functions leaving her at a second-grade level with particular difficulty retaining information. Nevertheless, as soon as the family heard about the cheer program, they were all-in.

“She’s never really had the opportunity to do that,” said her father, Carey. “[Cadie] was totally excited from the start. It just offers her a great, unique experience for something she’s never been allowed to do. She absolutely loves it. It’s been a great experience for her and for all the other kids,” he said.

There are a hundred stories like Cadie’s swirling around the Empire program, along with serious training. Plack knows every time the group cheers in public, it sends a message to the rest of the world as to what people with disabilities are capable of, so she insists on quality performances. It’s nowhere near the over-the-top drama of reality shows like “Dance Moms,” but she and the rest of the coaches don’t cut athletes any slack.

“Cheerleading requires an amount of expertise, and it requires training,” Plack said. “We train them just like you would any other athlete. We’ve got to train our bodies, we’ve got to get some muscles in there, we’ve got to have a little bit of endurance. A lot of times weight management and decreased activity goes along with [special needs] so we really try to combat that,” she said.

Another person in attendance at the interest meeting was an official with Arkansas Special Olympics, who is also a mother of a special needs athlete and one of Plack’s high school classmates. The woman asked if Plack would be willing to partner the as-yet unformed program with the state’s Special Olympics.

“I said, ‘Yeah, but Arkansas Special Olympics doesn’t have cheerleading,’” Plack remembered. “And she said, ‘Not yet.’”

Drawing from programs in other states, Plack helped write the rules for Arkansas Special Olympics cheerleading which includes two divisions: Traditional, where every athlete on the floor has special needs, and Unified, which is a mix of able-bodied and special needs athletes.

The goal is to one day compete, but for now the 28-member squad, ages 6 to 41, is all about raising awareness. Last year, they performed at cheerleading events and at the opening of the state Special Olympics Summer Games in Searcy, to thunderous ovation.

As exhilarating as the roar of the crowd was, it’s some of the quieter accomplishments that impact Plack most. This year, one of the club members had developed the skills and confidence to try out for her school’s cheer squad. And Plack frequently hears from parents about how the program has changed their family’s life.

“One of our little girls is a twin,” she said. “Her mom said to me, ‘I have two daughters. I have one with special needs and one without and they’ve always wanted to be cheerleaders, but I’ve never let them. How could I tell one of my daughters that she can be a cheerleader and the other one she can’t? Now they can both be part of the same program, and both have their own team.'" For the first time all day, Plack’s chirpy sweet voice fails her as the hard-nosed coach fights back tears. “That moment just makes you know what it's all about,” she said. “It's super special.”

Meet the Inspire Squad

We wanted to know a little more about this inspirational squad, so we asked their parents, and No.1 cheerleaders, to tell us what makes their athletes really shine.

Ava

AVA CHIPMAN, 10
Diagnosis: cerebral palsy
Parents: Jay and Jessica Chipman. Ava has two siblings: her brother Hayden, 15, and her twin sister, Gracie, who also attends Empire Cheerleading.

“Ava is an inspiration to anyone who meets her. She has a pure heart of love and joy. She is funny, quick-witted and has a contagious personality. Ava is our little hero. We hope to grow up and be like her one day. No matter life’s challenges, Ava sets out to conquer. No limits. Philippians 4:13.”

Gabriel

GABRIEL WATTS, 9
Diagnosis: Down syndrome
Parents: Blake and Karen Watts

“Gabriel is the most loving person we know. He gives 100 percent in all he does. It may take him longer to learn something, but he keeps trying until he has accomplished it. He puts a smile on everyone’s face!”

India

INDIA STEWART, 20
Diagnosis: Angelman's Syndrome, which is a deletion of her 15th chromosome
Parents: John Stump and Ronnetta Johnson-Stump

“We are India’s No. 1 cheerleaders because India has defied the doctor’s prognosis time and time again, and has learned and achieved far more than anyone ever thought she would. India is a constant inspiration in our lives to not give up, to strive to be the best we can in all things, and to laugh as much as possible. Because India is an inspiration to us, we strive to inspire her, and so we cheer for her to be her best.”

Anna

ANNA SPARKS, 21
Diagnosis: cerebral palsy
Parents: Garry and Marty Sparks

“We are Anna's No. 1 cheerleaders because since Anna was a little girl she has always been determined to do whatever the other kids were doing. She doesn't take no for an answer, and the word “can’t ” is not in her vocabulary. She is a very loving and kind person, and wants to be friends with everybody. We are so proud of her.”