A very special girl has finally achieved her dream of being a cheerleader -- thanks to an ingenious incentive plan by her mother and a group of Tehachapi High School students.
Eighteen-year-old Kailey Cornell has faced a lifetime of disabilities and challenges, but the Tehachapi teen was recently rewarded for changing a behavior she has struggled with for years when her mother negotiated an agreement with the Tehachapi Unified School District to allow the teen to cheer with certain conditions.
Cornell met that challenge, and earned her spot on the sidelines during the Warriors' homecoming football game on Oct. 4, where she donned a personalized sweatshirt, cheered and rang the touchdown bell.
She was even treated to to a ride in a fire engine along with the entire THS cheerleading squad, waiving to the crowd from the passenger seat as the truck circled the field.
"I liked the siren," she said.
And while it took Cornell two quarters to get into the groove of cheerleading, by the the second half she was already barking out cheers, especially her favorite: "Go, fight, win."
"She had the time of her life," said Cornell's mother, Heather Richter. "But for me, more importantly, I realized how great of a town that I live in. Not only the adults, but the young people of this town embrace my daughter."
That's probably because most of the students in Tehachapi have grown up with Cornell, who at sometime during her life, has attended six Tehachapi schools, first attending a preschool class for children with speech delays at Tompkins Elementary when she was 3. She is now enrolled in a severely handicapped class at THS.
"I have always been so impressed with the genuine care and concern the students have shown her," Richter said. "Have there been ugly comments to her? Yes, of course. But on the whole, the students have been very accepting of her."
And although Cornell has the physical body of a typical teenager, she thinks like a 6-year-old.
Those thoughts are accompanied by age-associated behaviors, which have stumped even the most qualified behavioral specialist.
But with just the right motivation, like strawberry milkshakes, pancakes for breakfast, a trip to the movies or a sleepover at grandma's, Cornell has been able to control these behaviors -- but only for a short amount of time. That has left her mother continually trying to find new motivators.
Enter football, a highlight in Cornell's life.
She loves the Dallas Cowboys and enjoys every aspect of the game, paying close attention to every detail, like when an official has thrown a penalty flag.
"Hey, there is a flag on the field. That means someone did something wrong," she will often chatter. "That's not good."
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the game for Cornell is not on the field, but rather what's taking place along its sidelines -- memorizing every cheer which she recites over and over in her mother's ear.
That passion prompted Richter to use football as a tool to help her daughter stay motivated, and made a deal with her to attend the next Friday's football game if she could change her bad habit for an entire week.
It worked, but there was one small problem. What happens after football season?
Richter said at that point she began to wonder if her daughter could be a regular cheerleader, but quickly realized that there was no way she could physically or mentally try out to cheer.
Nevertheless, she reached out to THS junior varsity cheer coach Vikki Worrell, to see if it was possible to create cheerleading as permanent incentive for daughter.
Worrell thought the idea was great, and after approval from school administration and team leaders, Cornell was allowed to attend her first cheer practice, where she was immediately greeted with hugs from the entire THS cheerleading squad.
Like any regular teenager, Cornell engaged the other girls in conversation, which is generally all about her, but no one seemed to mind and they immersed themselves in "her world."
After just a few practices, Cornell finally took her place on the sideline, celebrating her 18th birthday with a stadium full of friends.
And when asked what was the best part of her birthday, she said, "Cheerleading."