Cheerleaders Find Destiny

Destiny's cheerleading squad is like many others. The young girls, who range in age from 8 to 14, cheer loudly in their blue and white uniforms, showing their spirit by egging on crowds.

But, unlike most troupes, Destiny consists of girls with special needs, like Down's syndrome and autism. For the girls, the squad, which is based in Maryland, presents an opportunity to do something they might not get a chance to otherwise.

They get to run, cheer and jump, as they build a team.

"It's really amazing that I go out there and cheer and get a lot of medals and trophies," said cheerleader Marissa Mellentz.

The group travels and performs at exhibitions like any other cheerleading troupe. And for many, participating in the squad has been life changing.

"It's really built their self-confidence and their self-esteem and taught them the value of teamwork and compassion for each other," said Laura Thomas, whose 14-year-old daughter Chloe is on the squad. "After one or two practices, you see different kids. It's been amazing."

In addition to helping Chloe become more energetic and physically active, Thomas said the troupe has helped her daughter emotionally.

"She's more outgoing, more compassionate," she said today on "Good Morning America." "She's the caretaker on the team. She's giving the kisses to the boo-boos. She thinks she's the head cheerleader."

Programs like Destiny represent a shift in culture. While many public schools have educational programs for special needs children, only recently have more afterschool programs been dedicated to the students.

In fact, now 160 gyms in 34 states cater to special needs children. Many see it as a breakthrough.

"Everybody cheers with them. Everybody stands up for them. They get standing ovations because they're like that. They're really good," said Tatiana Lewis, a friend of the cheerleaders.

Destiny's positive energy is a departure from the sometimes critical and hurtful ridicules disabled children often receive.

"It's hard because they get neglected," said Jack Huntington, a father of a newcomer to the squad. "They play with typical kids. They start developing games like, 'Let's play hide-and-seek,' but it's hide from the special needs child."

Huntington brought his daughter to the gym Saturday for the first time. Within 20 minutes he saw astounding changes.

"Already, she seems to be exchanged and happy," he said. "She did a belly flop on the trampoline. She was literally jumping joy."

The joy can be infectious and even has spread to other girls who are not disabled.

"All these girls are so sweet," said volunteer Jordan Crow, who is not a special needs child. "They taught me so much. They're always so happy to see you and they're trusting and loving. I can use that later in life."

Perhaps cheering allows the girls to unlock the door in themselves that they couldn't have otherwise.

For more information on the troupe and to find out how you can help it, go to http://www.dreamallstars.com/cd/.

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