For a group of Seymour Middle School girls, cheerleading is fun and makes them popular at school.
But for one seventh-grader, it means so much more.
Being a cheerleader is an opportunity for 13-year-old Jorja O’Neal to socialize and fit in with girls her own age, which isn’t always easy.
She was born with DiGeorge syndrome, a rare disorder caused by a defect in her 22nd chromosome that has led to abnormal cognitive and emotional development.
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Symptoms of the condition include altered facial characteristics, problems with the immune system, defects in organs such as the heart, learning challenges and behavior and mood disorders.
But none of that matters when Jorja puts on a cheer uniform.
Her interest in cheerleading began a couple of years ago when she was gifted a blue and gold Trinity Lutheran High School cheerleading outfit, her stepmom, Melanie O’Neal said.
“She would wear it and cheer just at home,” Melanie said. “That’s when it first started.”
Jason O’Neal said he didn’t really think about his daughter being able to do much with cheerleading but never discouraged her, either.
“We saw an interest there, so we supported the interest at home,” he said.
Because Jorja’s siblings play sports, the family often would go to Seymour basketball and football games together.
Last December, she received a purple and white cheerleader outfit for Christmas.
“We’d take her to ballgames dressed in her cheerleader outfit, and she would participate in her own way in the stands,” Jason said.
Soon, other fans began to notice Jorja cheering and commented on what a good job she was doing.
During the final home varsity girls basketball game last season, Jorja went down on the floor and stood to the side and cheered by herself the whole game.
That’s when the high school cheerleaders took notice.
“They came over and told her how much they appreciated her cheering and how cute she was,” Jason said.
“A couple of the cheerleaders posed for pictures with her,” Melanie said. “She loves the cheerleaders.”
This year, Jorja’s brother, Josh, is an eighth-grader on the Seymour Middle School football team. Before one of his games, Jason and Melanie took Jorja into the gym to meet the Seymour Middle School cheerleaders.
“We just told them that Jorja wanted to come see them, and that she really likes cheerleading,” Jason said. “They just swarmed her all at once and wanted to be her friends.”
Jason said he was amazed by the support and acceptance the girls showed Jorja, which led their coach, Megan Welch, to invite her to come practice with them one evening.
Welch works as an instructional assistant with special needs students at Seymour-Jackson Elementary School. She noticed Jorja cheering during one of the football games.
“She was standing next to me and cheering with such spirit and heart,” Welch said. “She didn’t stop and learned so quick just being at the game. I thought to myself, ‘We have to get her out here.'”
That next week, Jorja got to experience what cheerleading is really like by attending a practice.
“They worked on cheers, and then we had a question-and-answer time with the girls so they could learn more about Jorja,” he said. “They were told about Jorja and about her syndrome and some of the struggles she deals with.”
Jorja’s story made a huge impact on the girls.
“They were very emotionally touched,” Jason said. “They all wanted to be her friend and wanted their picture taken with her.”
Although Jorja doesn’t talk a lot, she uses sign commands and has no problem expressing that she is happy.
The cheerleaders learned besides cheering, Jorja also loves to go to church and loves Jesus with all her heart.
“It made one little girl cry,” Melanie said.
It was the squad that asked Welch about letting Jorja cheer with them during a game.
“I knew then we had to put it in motion and get her out there,” Welch said. “The girls were so supportive and excited about Jorja cheering with them. They absolutely love her.”
So Welch asked Jason and Melanie if it would be OK if Jorja cheered during a game.
“I was like, ‘Are you serious? She can do that?'” Melanie said.
Jorja had to have a sports physical and was cleared to participate. Dressed in her purple and white cheer uniform, she went down on the track with the other cheerleaders during the home game against Brownstown Central Middle School.
Instead of standing at the side, Jorja was up front and center, and together with the other cheerleaders, they jumped, yelled and shook their pom-poms.
“We didn’t think she would cheer three of the four quarters, but she would have cheered all four of the quarters if I hadn’t made her take a break,” Melanie said.
“I was surprised at how much she participated and how hard she tried to do everything,” Jason said. “She did the job of a cheerleader. She got the crowd involved and excited, and that’s what a cheerleader’s job is.”
Besides burning off lots of energy, the game was an opportunity for Jorja to support her brother. The Owls ended up winning the game.
“That night, my face actually hurt from smiling. It was the best night of her life. It was the happiest night of her life,” Melanie said.
“She was so proud of herself, and I was so proud of her,” Jason said.
Welch said she plans to have Jorja cheer again in the future.
“The girls can’t wait to cheer with her again, so we are looking at her being at a basketball game, as well,” Welch said. “They even gave her a cheer bow the night they cheered together so she could match them and feel like part of the squad.”
Jason said in the last decade, there has been more awareness of special needs.
“There are more opportunities for special needs. There’s more acceptance of special needs,” he said. “There’s more assistance for people with special needs, more programs at the schools.”
Both the seventh- and eighth-grade cheerleading squads have accepted Jorja for who she is and what she can do, and they include her, making her feel like any other 13-year-old girl, Jason said.
“I’m so impressed and so appreciative of the cheerleaders and the coaching staff. These girls are first-class,” he said.
“There was no hesitation from any of them,” Melanie said. “They just accepted her.”