When the idea of putting together a Hollister Challenger Cheerleading team came up less than a year ago, everyone involved—from Hollister Vikings Pop Warner President Jeff Valenzuela to board member Monica Pritchett and many others—knew it would be a tremendous opportunity for special-needs girls to get involved in a positive activity.
Lora Schraft/Chief Photographer
The Challenger Cheer team from left, Marissa Casarez, 15, Leila Romero, 7, Julia and Jocelyn Lintag, 7, and Nessa Davis do a team cheer with help from head coach Monica Pritchett, second from right, and Sofia Rivas, team mom Anita Davis, and assistants Louisana Longoria, far right, and Jessica Graves, bottom, during practice Sept. 16 at R.O. Hardin Elementary School.
With five members in its inaugural year as a squad, the Challenger Cheerleading team has been nothing but an inspiring story of the human spirit.
The squad cheers at the Hollister Vikings Pop Warner football games. Four of the girls—Nessa Davis, Leila Romero and twins Jocelyn and Julia Lintag—cheer for the Mitey Mite squad (ages 7-9), while Marissa Casarez, a 15-year-old sophomore at San Benito High, cheers for the older Junior Midget team.
At competitions, all five girls cheer as one squad. Just like all of the other Vikings cheerleaders, the cheerleaders on the Challenger team practice several times a week and work together on stunts.
For the last two years, Davis cheered for the Morgan Hill Raiders Pop Warner program. However, since Davis is a Hollister resident, it made perfect sense for her to cheer for Hollister this year.
Jackie Lintag, the mother of twins Jocelyn and Julia, said the Challenger Cheerleading program has had a powerful impact on her girls.
“I honestly believe this has been life altering for my two girls,” said Jackie, whose twins are autistic. “Julia has always been more quiet and reserved, and yet she’s blossomed before our eyes. She has trouble speaking, but she hums the words out loud. Cheerleading has really boosted her confidence and let her personality shine.
Jocelyn is a bit shy when it comes to doing things in public, yet she has a more outgoing personality. So it helps to have her perform in front of a lot of people. Cheerleading has helped both of my girls to pay more attention and be patient, and there’s a constant amount of positive energy flowing in practices and at games. You can’t help but be amazed.”
Casarez’s mom, Melissa Rodriguez, was effusive in her praise for what the Challenger Cheer program has meant for her daughter, who has undergone several physical challenges.
Casarez, who has autism and moderate mental retardation, had to have two metal rods inserted in her back after having scoliosis surgery at the end of 2011. Casarez also has had bouts with epilepsy along with a physical discrepancy with her legs (one was longer than the other).
“The year after scoliosis surgery, that was a hard year for her,” Rodriguez said. “But she’s a champ. She’s been through some tough things and held it together very well.”
Pritchett, who is the head coach of the Challenger Cheer team, has been instrumental in spreading the word about the program to parents of special-needs children.
Pritchett already knew Casarez because they’ve been neighbors for the last four years.
“It’s been truly amazing to get to know these kids day by day,” said Pritchett, who also owns her own business, Pritchett’s Living Services, a residential care company that works with San Andreas Regional Center to provide care for individuals with disabilities from infants to adults. Pritchett also teaches dance classes in Hollister to special-needs adults. “They can light up the room. Their smiles and personalities have a way of shining.”
Indeed, Casarez said her favorite part about being on the cheer team was taking part in the stunts, while Jocelyn Lintag remarked how she loved shaking her pom-poms.
“Cheering is hard work, but I like doing it,” Lintag said. “I like wearing the uniforms and sparkly bows, and making friends.”
Said Casarez: “The stunts are my favorite part. They’re tough. Cheerleading has made me more happy in life compared to other things.”
Indeed, Rodriguez and Jackie Lintag said the cheerleaders from all of the other Hollister Vikings Cheerleading teams have taken in the Challenger Cheerleading girls with open arms.
When it comes to the Hollister Vikings Cheerleading program, mean girls are not allowed.
“The girls on the regular cheerleading team are so nice to our girls,” Jackie Lintag said. “They’ve been extremely patient with our girls, and it’s been heartwarming. They help them out by shouting words of encouragement, and as a parent of a special-needs child, it’s amazing to see because you just want people to accept our babies. I can’t stress enough how amazing it is for our girls to have a place where they can be accepted and loved at the same time.”
When Rodriguez watches her daughter perform, she freely admits that, “I’m ready to curl up in a ball and cry.” That’s because Rodriguez has seen firsthand the powerful transformation her daughter has undergone once she started cheering.
“Cheerleading has made a huge, huge difference in her social life at school,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve gotten calls from teachers saying how much she has progressed, and having the other girls on the team be extremely accepting of her has been a joy to see. Every time I see her perform and smile, I get goosebumps.”
Rodriguez said one of the best moments came at the Vikings’ season-opening jamboree, or scrimmage.
“I took a picture that night and posted it on Facebook, and to see her face just light up, I had tears,” Rodriguez said. “To get Marissa to look at the camera is really difficult, but that whole night, every picture was perfect. It was a smile that nobody had seen before.”
The Challenger Cheerleading team has also induced milestones for the Lintag family.
“It’s amazing to see Julia, who is almost non-verbal most of the time and uses one to two-word sentences, totally blossom with such confidence when she’s on the field and shaking her pom-poms,” Jackie Lintag said. “As a parent, it gets me emotional even talking about this because I’m trying not to cry.”
When parents bring a kid into the world, all they want for their children is to have a fair shot at life, an opportunity to eventually be independent and perhaps raise their own families in the future.
For many parents of special-needs children, they don’t receive that luxury. But every once in a while, something comes along that lifts their children to heights they had never reached before.
In this case, it’s the Challenger Cheerleading team.
“Cheerleading has brought something out of Marisa’s heart and soul,” Rodriguez said. “I know it seems really dramatic, but she’s expressing feelings that I’ve never seen before. I tell you this has been a huge step forward for her.”
Pritchett, who hopes to have a bigger team in the following years, summed up what the Challenger Cheerleading team is all about: “One thing I know is you never give up on people just because they have a barrier. Even if there are barriers, there are ways to get through them.”
The Challenger Cheerleading team is living proof.