The West Licking Special Olympics cheerleaders got the red-carpet treatment last Sunday, March 23, at the K Posh Hair Design Studio in Reynoldsburg.
Salon owner Kristina Newell styled their hair, and the girls had their nails painted and picked out fancy clothes to wear.
"This gives them the chance to do what they see other girls doing all the time and they don't get to (do)," said parent Kim Schmidlin, whose 22-year-old daughter, Ciera, has been cheering for two years.
"You put them in what they see on television and they are able to do this. It proves to them that there really is no difference between them and anybody else."
Selina Roane-Thomas said her daughter, Kaliha Roane, 19, started playing basketball in the Special Olympics and she always cheered during the games.
"She cheered the whole season and at that point, I didn't know (the West Licking Special Olympics) did cheer," Roane-Thomas said.
Knowing Kaliha's love of music and dancing, she enrolled Kaliha in cheerleading.
"I love it; it's so fun," Kaliha said, adding that she likes carrying pom-poms.
The nine girls who participated in the red-carpet day were brimming with energy as they went from station to station and room to room at K Posh, 7323 E. Main St. in Reynoldsburg.
Once their nails were painted, they moved to the dressing room to pick out dresses. Then Newell decorated their hair with bows, colored braids, feathers and even a small bird.
The girls also had their makeup done.
"They were my inspiration," Newell said. "I thought, 'Why not do a girls day where it's all about them? We'll do the red carpet, make them all glitzy and get it on film. It will make them feel good.' "
Newell said she and her helpers donated their time and services March 23. Newell also bought several articles of clothing.
Parent Lynn Puskarich-Sriprajittichai said after the red-carpet walk, the girls had dinner at Puerto Vallarta in Pataskala. She said they couldn't let the girls get all dressed up and then send them home.
As 21-year-old cheerleader Laura Shellman explained, they "were playing dress-up for the dinner."
Puskarich-Sriprajittichai said when Newell volunteered to open her studio on a Sunday to the girls, she was very excited for them to experience a social setting.
'The schools here are wonderful with academics," Puskarich-Sriprajittichai said about the Southwestern Licking schools. "But kids with special needs have weaknesses with social skills, and there's not a lot of ways for them to practice social skills."
Jennifer Waltz, whose daughter, Lizzie Waltz, 17, has been in the cheerleading program for two years, agreed.
"It's such a blessing for the girls and it's such a blessing for the parents," Waltz said.
The West Licking Special Olympics cheerleading program is coached by Devonna Brazil and Dania Brazil, who started this year.
They said they learned about the program because they have a sibling who plays Special Olympics basketball.
Dania Brazil said the cheerleaders practice an hour and a half once a week, learning routines and dances.
"I like supporting the team and telling people to support the (West Licking Watkins) Warriors," said 15-year-old cheerleader Faith Burgess.
But the girls also have a lot of fun.
"You can tell at every practice they're having so much fun. They love being here," Devonna Brazil said.
The cheerleaders cheer at West Licking Special Olympics basketball games, during two adult basketball leagues and for Watkins Memorial basketball teams, Devonna Brazil said.
The cheerleaders and the other West Licking athletes have another event on the horizon: the annual prom April 5 at the York Golf Club, 7459 N. High St. in Columbus.
Puskarich-Sriprajittichai said the formal is open to anyone. It costs $20 and includes a meal. She said financial assistance is available for those who can't afford tickets.
The prom is sponsored by the Free and Accepted Masons of Ohio, who provide the meal and serve it. A disc jockey also volunteers to keep the kids dancing, Puskarich-Sriprajittichai said.
Waltz said people can register for the prom by emailing email@example.com.
Puskarich-Sriprajittichai said the West Licking Special Olympics team recruits students from Baltimore, Heath, Hebron, Johnstown, Newark, Pataskala and Reynoldsburg.
"There are other Special Olympic organizations in the area," she said. "There is one in Newark, but some of their members come to ours, as well, and there's a new one in New Albany, so we don't get as many kids from there. We take anyone if they're willing to go to the practices.
"We have a marvelous group. Everyone gets along so well, all the families and the athletes, and the community support we get really is unique."