A CHEER-FUL HAVEN
Hillsboro teen who endured bullying finds a home at The Gym-Nest
Imagine youre a freshman in high school and youre nervous.
Youve been called names, chased down hallways and bullied since you were in seventh grade. Youve changed schools three times because of the harassment. Youve even had to deal with urinary tract infections because you couldnt go to the bathroom at school for fear of being shoved into the urinal by other kids.
And its all because youre attracted to boys more than you are to girls.
Your name is Jeffrey Dicintio, youre 15 years old and during your Spanish final at Century High School one day you get a text message that will change your life. Youve finally been invited to join the Gym-Nest All Star Cheer Squad.
At first, I was thinking, Uh-oh, I have to meet new people and theyre going to say stuff, Jeffrey said months later on a Monday afternoon before practice in the Gym-Nests sweltering, blue-foam-carpeted facility in south Hillsboro. But as soon as I walked in everybody was very friendly and introduced themselves.
They accepted it, like Okay, hes gay, thats not weird, thats just something he is. They wanted me to be a good cheerleader, regardless of my sexuality.
Gym-Nest was the first place Jeffrey, a Hillsboro resident, felt accepted since the Madras native came out in middle school. He always had a feeling he was different from some of the other boys, but I didnt have a word to connect it with until seventh grade, Jeffrey recounted. I thought, Oh, thats what gay is? Yep, thats me.
After that, the bullying started. Other kids acted like, Oh, now we dont have to call you gay, now we have to bully you for being gay. I barely left my house through middle school and most of freshman year.
Jeffreys life began a transformation last summer when he was inspired to join the cheer team by his 9-year-old sister Jemma, who had practiced gymnastics at the Gym-Nest since she was three. I thought, You know what? I want to be able to do a cartwheel, I want to be on cheer, he said.
However, Gym-Nests 15-member squad was full at the time, so Jeff practiced cheer techniques such as tumbling, stunting, jumping and dancing at home and at the gym until a spot opened up in February. A cheer member had been injured and the squad needed Jeff for the Oregon Cheerleading Coaching Association (OCCA) competition in March.
That was when he got the text during Spanish class. The rest of the squad had been learning the routine we were going to perform for six months, Jeffrey said. I had one week.
The teenager worked quickly to make up for his late start and plunged in.
Jeff progressed super-fast ... he went from not knowing how to do a cartwheel last summer to doing forward rolls and front tucks, said head coach Cari Aurich. It helps that hes in the gym a lot but its also his personality he has that drive to do anything, to be the best.
Jeff pulled through at the OCCA competition, where his newfound squad beat two other teams and won Gym-Nests first national cheer title in the junior (Level 1) division.
That was pretty incredible, said Jeffrey. I didnt know much about the competition and suddenly it was like, We won!
While Jeff is the only gay member of the Gym-Nest cheer squad, whose members range from 11 to 17 years old, he is not the only student to have found his niche there.
Theyve been very accepting from the beginning, said Alex Wizeman, whose daughter Teya is a member of the squad and has juvenile diabetes. The kids and the coaches keep an eye on her. They know when to give her snacks or insulin to get her blood sugar back to normal.
Even for Aurich, an experienced cheer coach, this squad stands out for its camaraderie.
Ive been coaching cheer for 12 years and this specific group of kids is very unique, she said. They all get along and they encourage each other every day at practice no matter how basic a skill someone is learning. And theres no drama, which is hard to say for an older group of teenagers.
Many people believe that all male cheerleaders are gay, but Jeffrey disagrees. Ive only met two other gay male cheerleaders at all the competitions Ive been to, he said. Before I got to Gym-Nest, another team had turned me down because they were a small Christian gym. They were very conservative.
Costs up to $1,000
While cheer at Gym-Nest is a very accepting environment, it doesnt come cheap.
Between shoes, practice uniforms, competition uniforms, coaching fees, makeup and competition fees, it can cost up to $1,000 per kid for one season, said Sherri Hert, assistant coach and treasurer for the cheer squad. Its a lot for a two-and-a-half-minute routine.
To raise funds, the cheer athletes and their parents host events such as garage sales, bake sales and a $10 breakfast day from 8 to 10 a.m. at the Hillsboro Applebees Friday, July 25. Applebees doesnt do breakfasts, so they allow the cheerleaders to come in and serve food, said Hert.
Jeffrey has played a leading role in the teams fundraising efforts.
Im pretty good at it. I have resources like the website Crowdrise, he said. Ive used that a lot to fund my way through summer camps. Or Ill write fundraising letters and my mom will send them out. She was a paralegal, so she has good business resources.
Despite Jeffreys best efforts, fundraising for the squad has proved challenging. A lot of companies we get in touch with would rather sponsor a high school softball team than a cheer team, because those softball players are student-athletes, rather than just athletes, said Jeffrey. Everybody here is a student too, though.
To help fundraise, Jeffrey also uses social media, where he has attracted quite a following on websites like Instagram.
I have 30,000 followers, [and] people have come up to me at competitions and asked me for autographs, he said. Everybody comments on my facial expressions Im super fierce and I pop and give attitude.
While fundraising for cheer isnt easy, cheering at Gym-Nest has made life a lot easier for Jeffrey.
Having this space has helped him so much, said Jeffreys mom, Shawna Dicintio. He has gained more confidence, hes happier, he looks forward to things even after a rough day at school.
For Jeffrey, the connection has been momentous.
I like cheer because its exhausting, and its thrilling to put my heart out on the floor during a routine, Jeffrey added. But I wouldnt like it as much if I wasnt so welcomed here. Its like going to a restaurant not only for the food but also for the friendly company and helpful waiters.
Were all so close, like a family.Add a comment