LYNDHURST, N.J.– Bella Banuls of Lyndhurst gathered everyone together in the corner of the big, blue mat set up inside the Sacred Heart School gym.
"Ready," she said as they all placed their hands into the circle. "One, two, three."
Then the SPARKS cheerleaders , comprised of both boys and girls with special needs – and a number of volunteers – took their places.
The music started and Banuls, their 12-year-old coach, led them in their roughly two-minute routine in front of parents snapping pictures on their phones.
"They're showing the world that they're capable," said Special Angels Recreation / Putting The Pieces Together President Deborah Wertalik, who founded the organization after her grandson, Tyler, was diagnosed with autism. "That they do not have a disability. They have the ability to do whatever it is that they want to do."
Banuls – Wertalik's granddaughter – has been the SPARKS coach for the past two years.
"My favorite part is watching the kids grow more and more and get better each time," Banuls said.
The SPARKS participate in competitions across the state. The season starts Sunday but the first competition isn't until Nov. 12.
The organization has attracted local volunteers, including two Becton High School cheerleaders, Alyssa Engel and Caroline Balawender.
"One thing I enjoy most is being able to help the kids and make sure they have fun and they don't feel like they're different," said Engel, a senior.
Balawender, who joined at the same time as Engel, said she became friendly with Tyler and Bella and regularly hangs out at the Banuls' home.
The SPARKS are hoping to raise money for a trip to Walt Disney World to perform in a competition in March 2017.
The cost is roughly $600 per person and would include theme park admission, a hotel, a welcoming party, and an end of the week bash, Wertalik said.
Fundraisers are in the works, Wertalik said.
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