The eager glint in their eyes and enthusiastic smiles are what you first notice when the River City Stars bound onto the stage. Dressed in navy, silver, and Carolina blue uniforms with their hair-bows bobbing, the squad members tumble, dance, and clap to the rhythm of an upbeat Disney music mix with all eyes on the team’s founder and coach, Elizabeth Rafferty. The River City Stars are a one-of-a-kind cheerleading squad in Central Virginia. All the girls on the team are extraordinary in their own way, and each has some type of developmental challenge or special need. But that doesn’t stop them from bringing it on when the music cues up – or from getting a standing ovation as they end a routine with a multi-level pyramid.
Fourteen-year-old Emily Dodge “loves the adrenaline rush on stage and also loves Coach Elizabeth,” says her mom Lyn. “Everybody has a little apprehension when their kids start something like this, but Emily acted like she owned the stage from the first day.”
Her mom may have been anxious about her daughter’s stage debut, but Emily – who has Down syndrome – wasn’t. “She knows no fear,” her mom says. “She is very much an extrovert. She’s very social. She loves the attention. ”Being on a cheerleading squad has given Emily a great deal of confidence. “That’s the biggest thing,” her mom says about Emily’s attitude. “She’s also learned patience – how to wait, cheer others on, and be supportive. She knows she is not always center stage. She knows she has to work as part of a team.”Having Emily on the squad has been a learning experience for her mother as well. “I’ve gained a full heart from knowing my child can
do things – she can keep up.
I have lots of pride that she can get up there and do that. It’s given me the drive to look for other things she can do that give her that sense of accomplishment,” she says.
Ready, Set, Cheer!
Watching the girls do something they love is important to Rafferty, who founded River City Stars in 2014. “I love that these kids have the opportunity to cheer because they generally don’t elsewhere,” she says.
She first recognized how unique this type of team was when she attended a traditional cheering competition in Norfolk in 2006 and saw a team composed of cheerleaders with special needs compete. A cheerleader herself when she was at the College of William and Mary, Rafferty was coaching a team in Richmond’s All Star Cheerleading program when seeing this special needs squad in the spotlight sparked something in her. “It was eye-opening to see the kids perform. I thought, if this can happen in Norfolk, why not in Richmond as well?” she says, adding that at the time, high schools didn’t have cheer teams with special needs.
She followed up with the team in Norfolk and then did her research locally, talking to schools and organizations such as Greater Richmond ARC. She checked with Special Olympics Virginia and was surprised to find out that the organization didn’t have a cheerleading team. “We are the only special needs team in Richmond,” she says. “There’s the one in Norfolk and also one in Maryland.”
She started a squad as part of the larger All Star Cheerleading program, but formed River City when that All Star team dissolved. She began with five girls on the squad, and over the last four years has had as many as fifteen. “We now have thirteen,” Rafferty says. The cheerleaders on the team range in age from seven to forty. “We have no age restrictions,” Rafferty says, noting that recreational activities for older adults with special needs are limited. She adds that the cheer squad also welcomes male cheerleaders. “We have all different types of specials needs. We also have a variety of levels of special needs.”
The girls practice every Sunday for one-and-a-half hours and perform at All Star cheerleader competitions in Richmond, usually one competition a month from December through April. “We do pyramids, stunts, jumps, tumbling, and a dance,” Rafferty says. “We do everything other competitive squads do, but we replicate them at a level the girls can perform.”
She has six coaches working with her who provide assistance on the floor. “Some of the coaches spot the girls and provide guidance, and some work with the girls individually,” she says.
Twenty-two-year-old former cheerleader Jenna Jackson started volunteering as a youth coach ten years ago when it was still under the All Star Cheerleading umbrella at All American Cheering. “Elizabeth used to be my coach when I competed outside of school,” Jackson says.
Jackson has a special place in her heart for children with special needs. “They always bring a smile to my face. I love watching them improve,” she says. “When they walk on the floor, it’s like they’ve been given a million dollars.”
As an exhibition team, the squad is scored, but not placed. The River City Stars have performed at five All Star competitions this year. “We still compete on the same score sheet as a regular team would,” Jackson says. “Our music is not as fast as a regular cheer team, but we still push the girls because it makes them happier and they feel more accomplished.”
Even though coaches are on the floor to help if needed, Jackson says, “for the most part, the girls do everything for themselves. ”
Most of the girls who have joined the team hear about it from friends or find it through the team’s Facebook page. Squad members stay on the team for years. “Generally, the girls who leave have gotten jobs, so their schedule doesn’t allow them to participate,” Rafferty says.
The benefits of being on the team go far beyond cheerleading. “We have a couple of girls who have come out of their shells and made friends,” Rafferty says. “The girls are building social and physical skills that keep them healthy. They are getting one-and-a-half hours of activity at practice that they don’t have otherwise. They are active and engaging with one another.”
Cameron Cummings’ daughter, Adeline Raquet, twenty-one, has been cheering since 2010. “When I first heard about it, I didn’t think she would want to do it because I heard about the competitions being loud and crowded, and I thought that would be overwhelming for her,” Cummings says, noting her daughter has sensory issues. “I think she was interested because she knew I was a cheerleader in school. She had seen cheerleaders at her school and at basketball games.”
Cummings says Adeline likes to dance and listen to music, and took dance classes when she was younger. “She was in regular dance classes when she was little, then they became too challenging. We found a place that had dance class for girls with special needs, but it was phased out,” Cummings says, adding cheering is good for her daughter because it “involves dance, stunts, and tumbling.” Opportunities for special needs kids and young adults come along randomly, she adds. “Anytime Adeline is presented with an opportunity and she wants to try it, we let her try it and make the decision on her own. When she made it through the first competition, we supported her wholeheartedly.”
The River City Stars squad also gives Adeline the chance to socialize, yet another welcome benefit. “This gives her ten to twelve new friends,” her mom says. “They are a very tightknit group of girls. ”The girls’ moms have also bonded into a tightknit support group. “While the girls rehearse, we talk about everything. It’s been great for us as moms,” Cummings says. “We talk about therapies, medicines, and doctors – but it’s not just about our special needs children. We have become good friends as well. You join and you are right in there. It’s nice to be with people who get it. My [other] friends don’t get it, because they haven’t lived with it.”
Being on the squad has helped Adeline with self-confidence. “The girls get up on a huge stage in front of a whole lot of people with lights and music, and that can be overwhelming for a child with sensory issues,” Cummings says. “Adeline used to burst into tears before she would walk out. Now she walks out smiling, blowing kisses, and waving.”
Working with the squad has also given the young adult a healthy dose of self-worth. “She sees that she can do something just like someone else her age is doing,” her mom adds.
Walking out on stage in front of a large crowd is scary for anyone, Rafferty says. “Performing under the lights and in an environment where a thousand people are giving you a standing ovation? That gives you confidence.”
Spectators watching the two-and-a-half minute performance are inspired by the girls. “It takes a lot of courage to get out there and do what these girls do,” Rafferty says. “They can’t wait to perform. They can’t wait for the music to start.”
Beyond the Coaching
One of the outcomes from the girls’ participation on the team is the bond they form with Rafferty and her volunteer coaches. “My coaches are genuine,” Rafferty says. “They have a passion for what they are doing in the gym and for these girls. The girls will share things with the coaches. The relationship is priceless to the kids and the coaches.”
Cummings is appreciative of the time the young coaches voluntarily give up to be with the girls. “They have beautiful hearts. They are kind, giving, and supportive,” she says. “They treat our girls just like anybody else. They don’t judge them in any way.”
Because River City Stars is a nonprofit organization, Rafferty tries to keep costs down so parents don’t have to worry about any financial concerns. She only charges $100 per family for the girls to cheer. That fee covers everything – including pom-poms and cheering uniforms. “We rely on and survive off of donations,” she says of the nonprofit. The parents of the girls think the world of Rafferty. “Elizabeth keeps our girls’ interest at heart and puts them above anything else. If we didn’t have Elizabeth, none of this would exist,” Cummings says.Rafferty is the driving force behind the team, Lyn Dodge adds. “She puts together a great team of coaches. All the coaches are patient and full of life. They treat our kids like they are one of them – like they would treat any other child.”
Rafferty, who works as the policy and legislative director at Virginia’s Department of Housing and Community Development and is the mom of a 5-year-old, doesn’t have a personal connection to special needs. She recognized a need in the community and a way to help families with kids who have special needs. “I love these girls and their parents,” she says. “I get more out of this than I give – and that means the world to me.” Creating this type of program for the kids “is remarkable. It’s heartwarming,” Dodge adds. “Elizabeth will always have a special place in my heart for doing it.”
Since starting the team, Rafferty has learned her own set of life lessons. She sees how hard the girls push to become proficient on stage. “They encourage one another,” she says. “Something I have learned from them is to always be supportive. They are linked to one another, and the success of each member of that team is important.”
She has also witnessed the level of perseverance in the girls. “For me, that’s a lesson,” Rafferty says. “It’s about continuing to challenge yourself and do things you don’t think you can do.”