By NATALIE PATE
SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Lora Harrington has wanted to be a cheerleader for as long as she can remember.
Growing up, Harrington cheered at her uncles’ and sisters’ sports games, dressing up in cheer outfits and chanting her support.
“Ever since I was a baby, I’ve been yelling,” she said.
But when Harrington, 14, started her freshman year at West Salem High School and wanted to try out for the cheer team, her mother prepared for the worst.
Harrington has Down syndrome, reported the Statesman Journal (http://stjr.nl/2dZWk0U). Her mother, Cory Wingett, said Harrington has been consistently left out of birthday parties and other group activities.
Wingett worried that trying out for the junior varsity cheer team would be one more example of exclusion.
To her surprise, the coaches and teammates actively worked to make sure Harrington was supported from day one.
“For once, it hasn’t been a struggle to be included,” Wingett said. “She is finally being accepted and loved for who she is.”
Harrington loves getting drinks from Dutch Bros. Coffee, singing songs from “Frozen,” going to school dances and, of course, watching The Avengers (Thor is her favorite).
Wingett said the crowd loves cheering her on at games.
“The community has really come together to help her succeed and to accomplish her dream,” she said.
Cheer Coach Aarika Guerrero worked with Wingett to get the cheers to Harrington ahead of the tryout so she could practice them with her speech therapist.
Guerrero and some of the other students talked with Harrington and made it a fun environment for her to blossom.
“There were moments (during the tryout) when she was a little overwhelmed,” Guerrero said. “At one point, she hid near the bleachers. One of the cheerleaders, Abby, followed (me) over and we knelt down to check on her.
“(Lora) said, `I’m fine.’ Abby took it upon herself. She made eye contact with her and said, `I really want to practice. Can you come over and help me practice?”’
Guerrero was surprised by the inclusiveness that set the tone for the year.
“I thought, `Wow, this is going to be good,”’ she said.
Guerrero said the cheerleaders make a point of seeing Harrington at school.
Two cheerleaders, Maddie Williams and Savannah Jones, even planned an elaborate way to ask Harrington to the homecoming dance.
“She hasn’t always had choices like this,” Williams said. “It feels really great to make her happy.”
The two girls said they were touched and encouraged to help when Wingett told them Harrington had been excluded all her life.
“Nobody should feel like that,” Williams said.
Jones and Williams are on the junior varsity squad with Harrington.
As a way to keep Harrington engaged and excited about cheer, she is allowed to pick the cheers at practice. Her friends and squad-mates help her memorize the more than 40 cheers they have to learn, as well as the steps.
Harrington said her friends are her favorite part of being a cheerleader at West.
Wingett, wiping away tears, said “it means the world” for her daughter to be treated this way.
Harrington has her share of birthday parties to attend this year.