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People's choice: Local cheerleader to appear in magazine

Johnson, Shooting Stars getting some dap in People Magazine

STERLING – People Magazine has spoken, and it wants Tyler Johnson.

The 21-year-old firecracker of Shooting Stars cheerleading fame is one of three members of cheerleading and dance teams who will be featured in the edition of People Magazine that will hit newsstands everywhere Wednesday.

The article centers on the 10th anniversary of The Sparkle Effect, a nonprofit that helps students create cheerleading and dance squads for kids with disabilities.

Johnson, who has Down syndrome, was honored with Sparkle Effect’s Superstar of Spirit award in 2013. The organization also used his picture on its awareness-raising postcard in 2011.

“That, I thought, was huge, like it was the biggest thing in the world,” said Johnson’s mom, Ann Walters. “It’s pretty crazy to think about how many people will see the People Magazine article.”

Not bad for a guy who bristled at cheering when Shooting Stars coach Susie LeMay asked him to join in 2010.

“He said cheerleading is for girls,” Walters said, looking at him across the couch and smiling. He smiled back.

LeMay is one smart cookie, though.

“She said they needed my big strong muscles,” he said, flexing. “She’s my best coach ever.”

He was sure to include credit for LeMay and others he cherishes in his interview Aug. 16. With mom’s help, he answered a few emailed questions, and she spent about 25 minutes on the phone with the reporter.

“It’s unreal,” she said.

The grand finale … or is it?

Just a couple of days after folks worldwide meet Johnson via the People article, he’ll cheer one last time for the Shooting Stars – Friday night, when his beloved Comets host St. Bede at Sterling Chevrolet Field at Roscoe Eades Stadium.

Students with developmental disabilities are guaranteed education through age 22, which Johnson turns Dec. 8.

No need for goodbyes, however. Johnson will soon say hello to a new role when the upcoming high school basketball games start.

“I’m going to be a cheer coach,” he said with a smile bigger and brighter than the sun.

LeMay brought it up to him a couple of years ago, and he jumped all over the chance.

“I just love to cheer,” he said.

A much-needed lift

That opportunity and the People Magazine feature are coming at a great time. Federal rules took effect in late July requiring people 24 and younger with disabilities to jump through some new hoops to work for subminimum wage, which Johnson earned at Self Help Enterprises.

Now, the family must work with the Department of Rehabilitative Services, and Walters said it can take 60 days for workers to come out and assess people to find out what sort of work they can do.

“It’s been a huge change,” Walters said. “There’s not much out there for him. We’re still trying to piece together what we’re going to do now that Tyler’s officially done with school.”

They’ve been finding ways to fill the days, such as going four-wheeling and going to the zoo with his fellow Shooting Star Gaby DeLafuentes, who he’s known since they were 2. They had back-to-back early intervention appointments at Self Help, and have been best buds ever since.

“She makes me happy,” Johnson said. “We have fun.”

He’s got a Keith Urban concert coming up Oct. 27, and then things get …

Busy, busy

That’s just how Johnson likes it. A group of local moms worked with Debbie Kelly, the area’s Special Olympics director, to independently enroll a team of kids who are out of high school.

“He’s going to get very busy soon,” Walters said.

“Busy, busy,” Johnson said. “It’ll be wonderful.”

Special Olympics hoops starts Nov. 1, and then it’s track, then bowling – Johnson’s favorite.

So many opportunities, so much of his much passion, sprung from Shooting Stars, which received the Sparkle Effect Spotlight award as a squad in 2012.

Johnson is ecstatic to stay an active part of that family, which welcomes kids from all school districts. But it's a long drive for some, his mom pointed out.

“I would love to see Sterling High School, Rock Falls and all the other community schools take part in getting these programs at their school,” Walters said. “It costs nothing to the schools to get it up and running. It takes a couple of cheerleaders who really want this program, and a coach who’s going to pull it all in.

“I can’t tell you how much it’s done for us.”

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