KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Over a decade ago, Powell Cheerleaders traveled to a competition where they saw another squad cheering alongside individuals with disabilities. From there, the ‘Peps’ were born, allowing Powell students with disabilities the opportunity to stand side-by-side as one of the same with the Panthers’ cheerleaders.
Every third quarter inside the jungle, Powell shows there’s no bounds to being a cheerleader.
“It’s an opportunity for those 12 minutes that third quarter here at powell for those students to be more than a face that gets past in the hallways.” said Devin Cupp, Special Ed teacher and ‘Peps’ Coach, “I think a lot of times with our population of individuals with disabilities they’re looked at as a charity case or oh they’re so cute they have disabilities but that’s not what this is, this is an opportunity for them to truly participate in an athletic event at a high school amongst their peers were they go to school and truly be a part of something bigger than themselves.”
Cheering on the Panthers, they’re defined by their love of the sport, nothing else, “We’ll go places around the community and they’re like I know you’re kids because they’re a cheerleader at Powell,” said Lisa Sulack, mom to Andrew and Hannah, ‘Peps’ Cheerleaders.
When you bridge the gap between two groups that would otherwise be viewed as different, it’s a pretty incredible outcome, “When you have special needs kids, and they’re low verbal, a lot of times people don’t know how to interact with them and so having a common thing like cheerleading opens a door because the kids like to dance together, the kids like to cheer together and it starts building a friendship and from that they can develop more relationships with kids and people in the community,” said Sulack.
Powell’s ‘Peps’ program has not only helped to close a social gap between those with and without disabilities, it’s created a safer space for all students to learn and grow.
That type of space doesn’t exist everywhere, “It feels special to me and I feel happy when I get to be included because not everybody else gets there,” said ‘Peps’ cheerleader, Rylee Clark.
Now intact for over a decade, the acceptance the ‘Peps’ squad fosters continues to extend far beyond the third quarter on Friday nights.
“I think the ultimate goal is really to just continue to spread the spirit of inclusivity that’s seen every Friday night here and every girls basketball game they cheer at as well to just have that spirit seep in not only through the walls of the school but really through the hearts of the people that are here to make the world a more inclusive place,” Cupp said.