LIVERMORE -- School spirit at Livermore High School has never been stronger, thanks to 18-year-old Erika Gruidl, who believes everyone should have a chance to cheer.
Gruidl created and coaches the Shooting Stars cheer team, made up of young men and women from the school's special education day class. Ranging from mildly to severely challenged, the nine students on the team have become school celebrities, performing at rallies and games. The team is even scheduled to participate on the big stage at an event at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore on April 15.
"I wanted to give them a chance to be on a team of their own," Gruidl said. "I want them to feel like they're a part of the school and that everyone can know who they are."
The idea for the team grew from a conversation Gruidl had with her mother, Kim, two years ago, as the two discussed a similar program they'd heard about. Gruidl, a lifelong dancer and a cheerleader since her freshman year, took the idea to her cheer coach, Tracy Dreher, who also works as a special education aide.
Once administrators and parents gave the green light, Gruidl assembled the first team -- four girls and two boys -- and began to practice with them during her free period. Finding space to rehearse was tough, as was learning her dancers' abilities and limitations.
"I taught them a routine, and we practiced every day," she said. "Originally I thought they wouldn't catch on ... but I also didn't want to make it completely easy. I just made the dances a little slower; they'd do arm movements, turn, get on their knees and back up, do cartwheels and kicks."
She was challenged not only by her students, but also by administrators who initially feared the student body wouldn't support such a team. Her faith proved justified.
"When I found out the administration was really concerned that students would mock and ridicule my team, I was out to prove them wrong," she said. "Even if there were a few boos and jeers, the rest of the applause and positive cheers would drown out everything else.
"The reaction and the cheers were so loud it kind of overwhelmed some of the team. At one rally, I couldn't even hear the music playing because everyone was so loud."
Livermore High special education aide Julie Wright, who nominated Gruidl as a Hometown Hero, remembers the Shooting Stars' first performance.
"They brought down the house, leaving many of the staff in tears at their fabulous performance. The student body applauded for the longest time ever. It was the most spirited rally I have seen in the 12 years that I've been here," Wright wrote in her nomination.
Now in its second year, Shooting Stars has grown to nine members, and Gruidl has succeeded not only in creating a cheer team, but also in opening lines of communication between her team and their peers.
"I walk outside, and I hear a lot of my friends saying 'hi' to them, which makes the kids really happy," she said. "Now, they're welcoming them and treating them as their friends.
"And (the Shooting Stars) go out of their way to be a part of the school because they know they can."
During a recent lunchtime practice in the gym, team members, clad in official black Shooting Stars T-shirts, followed Gruidl's directions to limber up before the workout.
"She's a great coach," said 14-year-old freshman Amberly O'Donnell. "She teaches us how to dance."
Bailey Olsen, one of three boys on the team, agreed. "It's a lot of fun," he said. "I'm starting to get the hang of it now.
"I like when we perform in front of all the girls," he added with a grin.
Gruidl's unrelenting focus, sensitivity and commitment to the team sets her apart, Dreher said.
"This has given these kids a high school experience they will carry with them forever," she said.
"Erika never backed down, even when she met with opposition last year. She never gave up. She came in with the idea that she wasn't looking for anything other than the chance for these kids to experience cheer as she has. The focus has to come back to the kids, and Erika has always, always made it that way."
Gruidl, who has managed to keep a 3.8 grade-point average, also is on the high school track team and dances ballet. She hasn't decided on a college major but hopes to attend UCLA or USC in the fall. Now she's busy, along with assistant coach Kendall Sanchez, trying to find a new Shooting Stars coach for next year.
"It means a lot to me that I've helped the students," she said. "But it means a lot more that I'm going to make a difference in the lives of the students I haven't been able to coach -- the ones who haven't come to the school yet, the ones who will be here in the future."
CLAIM TO FAME: Creator of the Shooting Stars cheer squad for Livermore High School special education students
QUOTE: "When I found out the administration was really concerned that students would mock and ridicule my team, I was out to prove them wrong."
UPCOMING: The Shooting Stars will perform April 15 at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore as part of 2012's "Reach for the Stars," event. The 2 p.m. Livermore Valley Education Foundation fundraiser features performances by Livermore students, and raises funds for instrumental music, performing arts and visual arts for children and teens citywide. Tickets, $12.50 for students and $25 for adults, can be bought at 925-373-6800 or online at livermoreperformingarts.org.