giving back

Cheering For Charity

Cheering For Charity

“If you haven’t got any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble,” funnyman Bob Hope once quipped. It feels good to give back, but that might seem like a tall order if your weeks are filled with classes, meetings and competitions. Still, finding time to do philanthropic work can benefit your gym and, most importantly, your athletes.

Many gyms realize this and manage to make giving back a priority. In fact, according to Cheerleading.org, more than half of all cheer teams currently participate in community charity events. A select few have won USASF Chairman’s Cup awards, which honor programs that display powerful philanthropic or community service work each season. Others have been supporting the same charity for years, getting the kids involved in the community—and, in turn, getting the community to pay attention to their business.

Julie Van Os, owner of Tracy, CA-based Athletic Perfection, is a former high school leadership teacher, so being involved in the community has always been a core value for her. Every Christmas since she started her gym, her athletes have gone “ringing the bells” for the Salvation Army in front of local businesses. Last year, they wanted to do more so they “adopted a family” in Tracy for the holidays, donating toys, clothes and gifts. They also help with Case for Kids, a program that provides a “custom case” to foster children—filled with clothes, blankets, stuffed animals and things to make their new place feel like home.

Van Os says philanthropy is a “win-win” as far as business goes, since it helps get the word out about your program and increases exposure in the community. Doing charitable work can also make your kids better athletes, which is a sentiment that many gym owners share. “[Athletes] learn about teamwork, perseverance, commitment and hard work,” says Van Os. “They’re learning about giving back and being thankful for what they have.”

To find balance, Van Os and her team try to do their charity work during the less busy times of the year, when schedules are less intense. She says it’s important to focus on causes you care about, rather than spreading yourself thin.

“Choose something you’re passionate about—that’s the key,” she says. “If you jump around, you lose your drive.” And don’t do it for the business, she advises. Instead, do it because it feels right and you truly want to give back.

Tara Wieland, program director/coach of Midland, MI-based Michigan Storm Cheer & Dance, initially started her charity program to help teach her own daughters the value of appreciating what you have. One of their biggest charities is Toys For Tots, an organization they’ve been supporting for over a decade. They’ve also had the athletes write letters to soldiers in Afghanistan. “It was hilarious,” Wieland says. “One little girl wrote: ‘Thank you for saving our country and I really like camouflage shirts.’ The feedback we got from the soldiers was amazing.” The gym has also done things like hold a flash mob for the American Cancer Society.

She says some kids initially resisted the charity work, but quickly grew to love it. “Watching them give back is better than watching them do something on the floor. It has become the backbone of what our program is about,” shares Wieland.

The best advice Wieland has is that if charity work is going to be a part of the program, explain that to parents ahead of time in an open, honest way. “You have to be upfront about it,” Wieland says. “I haven’t had any problems, and now we have way more parental support than we used to.”

This charity-focused trend also seems to be ramping up with a new slew of competitions in the last few years that devote winnings to charity, such as Amazing! Champions and Cheer for Charity. At Amazing!, participants complete a charity service project, which is announced as each gym enters the performance mat. $10,000 is awarded to the chosen philanthropies of the winners; beneficiaries have included the Texas Autism Foundation, Scottish Rite Hospital, The Dallas Association of the Deaf, Foster Families of Texas and the Carter Blood Care Center, to name a few.

Even if your gym isn’t participating in a competition like Amazing!, it can still be impactful to target a central cause. “Each year, pick a different charity to support,” suggests Smith. “Even better is to have your athletes involved.” And don’t forget to let Smith know about it—on the website for his other company, Spirit Celebration, Smith has created a “Community Service” page to spotlight the good deeds of various gyms.

At Gymniks All Stars in Grand Prairie, Alberta, program director Jennifer Lekisch implemented charitable work as soon as she signed on in 2010. Each year, they focus on different ideas, but always with the goal of bettering the community, which helps keep them focused. They’ve helped victims of a DUI accident and have done advocacy work for Toys for Tots, Breast Cancer Awareness, the “Butt Out” National Non-Smoking Campaign and Heart Month, to name a few.

The gym is a non-profit, so their charitable work is not a tax write-off. “It is just something we do to give back to our community and help build that foundation of excellence in our community,” Lekisch says. She also says that it does attract attention to the gym, which can be a reward in itself. They fit the charitable work into their schedule by doing it during slower points in the season, and they use social media to promote and spread the word about the work they’re doing.

As far as advice for gym owners who are thinking about getting into charitable work, Lekisch says, “Ask yourself three questions: What’s important to you? What image do you want to put out there about your athletes and your gym? What do you want to be remembered by?”

In short, it’s about staying organized, getting the kids (and parents) on board, finding charities that you’re passionate about and integrating the philanthropic work into your gym’s ethos—rather than tacking it on as an afterthought.


Mission: Fulfillment

Mission: Fulfillment

It may sound like just another trendy buzzword, but “volun-tourism” is a very real trend. A 2008 study by Tourism & Research Marketing found that an estimated 1.6 million volunteer tourists take “ethical” holidays where they have an opportunity to experience another culture while performing philanthropic actions. Yet another 2008 survey by University of California-San Diego researchers found that 45 percent of Americans said they’ve considered taking volunteer vacations, and 72 percent knew someone who had been a global volunteer. If you’re thinking about joining their ranks, get inspired by these three inspiring stories from cheer professionals who’ve been there and done that: 

Bringing Cheer to Belize: Virginia Baldwin

In 2013, Virginia Baldwin, owner of All-American All Star Cheerleading and coach at Mechanicsville, VA-based Hanover High School, traveled with her two daughters and several athletes to Belize, where they conducted youth cheer camps and engaged in community service projects. In a country that places little value on females, Baldwin was gratified to help to raise self-esteem and put smiles on young faces through individualized attention—and some cheer bows. “To see the joy in these little girls’ faces is a beautiful thing. We think we are changing someone else’s life, but our lives are the ones that are changed,” she says. “A little piece of my heart is in Belize.”

Baldwin’s life-changing experience inspired her high school cheerleaders to climb aboard. Last year five of them accompanied her; this year, 10 will make the trip. “To take kids from upper middle-class families to a third world country is eye-opening for them. They see what these kids eat and how they live—but they bond like you can’t imagine,” she says. “I hope the lesson is something that will carry through to adulthood. It’s all about loving one another. There’s no better way to do this than to spend time with someone in need.”

Back home, the experiences in Belize have restored Baldwin’s love for cheer. “It’s given me a new vision for the way I coach. It’s not just about winning. It’s about self-worth. I love having the privilege to coach and want to mentor young girls, to let them know someone believes in them,” she says. “It brings us back to center and makes us realize what’s truly important in life.”

Getting Schooled in Bolivia: Sydney Cottle

The spirit of giving comes naturally to Sydney Cottle. A cheerleader and senior at Portland, OR-based Lake Oswego High School, she participates in the Susan G. Komen Cheer for a Cure event, ties fleece blankets and donates them to the Portland Rescue Mission and volunteers every Sunday with Team Shine (Oregon’s first cheer team for athletes with special needs). But she sought something more. That “something” became a three-week trip with Humanitarian Experience for Youth (HEFY) to Bolivia, where she helped construct a school and worked at an elderly care facility.

During her stay, she and 20 other teens from across the country engaged in some heavy-duty construction work. “Things were very prehistoric there. We didn’t have any big machines to mix cement; everything was done by hand,” says Sydney’s mom, Michelle Cottle, who accompanied the group as a parent helper.

In addition to intense labor, the group played with the Bolivian children and attempted to teach them the English alphabet. Even though Spanish is the country’s native language, the language barrier proved to be only a minor challenge.

Originally intended as a way to initiate change outside of her immediate community, the trip fostered a transformation in Sydney. “I’m a lot more grateful for what I have. These people have so little, but they always manage,” she explains. “I’m happier and more outgoing. Just to see what others go through on a daily basis is eye-opening.”

From Reluctant to Rewarded: Melanie Randolph

Unlike Cottle, Melanie Randolph was not initially sold on the idea of an overseas mission trip. “I thought staying at a Holiday Inn was roughing it,” says Randolph, who owns Danville, CA-based Spirit Force Cheer & Dance. But she changed her mind when she and her husband were recruited by a missionary in 2007 to travel to Pazardzhik, Bulgaria. There they taught Christian drama stories in several gypsy villages and also helped feed the citizens; the trip was so impactful that they made it an annual endeavor from 2007 to 2011.

In retrospect, Randolph emphasizes that she received ten-fold back what she gave to the Bulgarian people. “God’s given me so much. All I can give them is me,” says Randolph, who is a member of the Christian Cheerleaders of America (CCA) advisory board. “I’ve gotten more out of it than they did.”

Randolph also points out that the experience for the children who also made the trip with Macedonian Outreach was life-changing. “To get the kids to experience this is very important. It took me almost 50 years to do something like this. Imagine what I could have done if I started earlier,” she says. “When you step outside your comfort zone, it changes your heart.”