HIGH BRIDGE -- When Debbie House answered the phone in mid-July she was a bit confused by who was calling.
It was the New York Yankees.
Her Hunterdon Huskies Contender Cheer Team made up of 10 special needs girls were just selected to be honored at the Stadium for Yankees HOPE Week. "I couldn't believe it," House said. "I nearly dropped the phone."
"The Yankees? What? As in the New York Yankees?" was the response from Susan Lavigne, Cheer Coordinator for the Hunterdon Huskies, after House told her about the call.
"I'm so happy for them and honored that it rose to somebody's radar to nominate them," Lavigne said. "They can see what was special in them and give them that opportunity to have the spotlight and have that attention for a day — and they deserve it."
The idea to form the Contender Cheer Team started in 2011 after House had been watching a simulcast of a national cheerleading competition. In between performances, she noticed groups of special needs kids cheering. House emailed Lavigne. According to House, "Lavigne responded within 35 seconds."
The result was taking the Contender Cheer program to Hunterdon Huskies home games at Union Forge Park in High Bridge.
House believes being involved in the team teaches important lessons. She wants to be a good example for her daughter, as well as a good example for the girls on the team.
"As teenage girls, it gives them the inclusion of the social aspect of what sports brings," said House, a resident of Clinton Township. "It teaches them how to work with other girls and get along with other women and those are life skills that will serve them for years."
In addition to herself, volunteer junior coaches help out, including her daughter Karli, Mikaela Jenkins, Angie Slusar and Caroline Zentmayer, all North Hunterdon High School students inspired by House to do meaningful work for the Contenders and their community.
Yankees players Andrew Miller, Chris Capuano, John Ryan Murphy, Chasen Shreve and Michael Peneda along with WWE wrestling stars Titus O'Neil and Darren Young surprised House and her girls at a luncheon at Jawonio in New City, N.Y.
Jawonio is a facility that provides services to individuals with developmental disabilities, behavioral health challenges and chronic medical conditions. After some time meeting one another, the girls taught the players and wrestling stars a cheer. It was the highlight of the event to see these big athletes shaking pom-pons with this group of girls.
"Debbie's idea is a very unique one and it's really taken off and these girls love it," said Miller. "You know it takes a special person to come up with something like that, it really is something else."
At Yankee Stadium, the Contenders got to watch batting practice. Shortly before game time the cheer team was honored in a pre-game ceremony behind home plate, which included a video highlighting the group on the massive center field screen. The girls and coaches held a Hunterdon Huskies banner which the Yankees players broke through as they were announced and entered the field for game time.
"Hopefully what we can do is show other people in the community that this is not a difficult thing to start, anybody can do it," House said. "It's not a magic potion, I'm not some all star cheerleader, I'm just a mom from New Jersey who showed up."
Andre Malok may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndreMalok. Find NJ.com on Facebook.