Tucson J launches inclusive cheer team

The Sparks cheer team practices a pyramid formation, with Peter Ruiz at the center, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

In August, Allison Wexler, Tucson’s Jewish community special abilities coordinator, was exploring athletic programming ideas for individuals with special needs. When she learned the Tucson Jewish Community Center would be forming a flag football league, she thought, “What does football need? Cheerleaders.”

Wexler created a new program at the Tucson J called Sparks Cheer, a co-ed all-inclusive cheerleading team for people of all ages and abilities. The team currently has 14 participants ranging in age from 3 to 36.

The program began as an adaptive one, specifically for individuals with special needs. However, as it evolved, “neuro-typical” individuals expressed interest in joining. “It’s sort of a reverse inclusion program. The cheerleaders and their families all seem really happy to be a part of it,” says Wexler, who notes that February is Jewish Disabilities and Inclusion Awareness month.

Cheer participants have been making friends and building self-esteem while learning stunts, tumbling, and dance, she says.

Bernadette Ruiz, mother of cheerleader Peter Ruiz, says, “Peter tells family and friends, nearly daily, about how excited he is to be in cheer class. He is very proud of and enthusiastic about his participation in this class.”

“The personalities of the cheerleaders on the squad, the enthusiasm I see for learning, and the cheerleaders’ bravery in trying things they’ve never done before is such a bright spot in my week. Sparks Cheer’s spirit of inclusiveness is unlike anything else I’ve ever gotten to be a part of,” says Katie Filous, a volunteer coach.

The team practices weekly at the J and will perform at the J’s Rachmanus Bowl (the term, which means “mercy,” refers to concepts of good sportsmanship) on Feb. 19 between the 5:30 and 6:45 p.m. flag football games.

Registration for session two of the Sparks program is open, with practices beginning on March 7. Contact Wexler at awexler@tucsonjcc.org.