Harlem Cheer Program Aims to Facilitate Young Girls’ Development

By Melina Asteriadis

Three times a week, the Clinton Community Center on East 110th Street in Manhattan, is full of energy as girls from a wide range of ages practice their cheerleading skills under the guidance of the Harlem Girls Cheer program. The program was founded last year by six Harlem-based professionals on International Women’s Day, a date which complements its goal of empowering young girls and supporting their development in all aspects.

In this year long program, girls work on improving their cheerleading skills, forming routines to perform in statewide and even national competitions, and adjusting to being part of a team. “Most girls starting out have no sports experience, so there’s lots of work to do with endurance,” said Radina Russell, a founder and director of Harlem Girls Cheer. “There’s a lot of complaining when they start, and frustration when they find they can’t do something, but they quickly discover how to learn from their mistakes and make better decisions, which impacts them in a larger sense.”

Girls ages 8-18 are allowed into the program, and during the regular cheer season are divided by age. During the All-Star season, however, girls of all ages can be placed on the same team, which is an adjustment they have to make. Kiana Jackson, a high school senior who has been cheerleading since her sophomore year, mentioned the impact being on a team with younger girls has had on her. “I’ve learned to manage my frustration,” Jackson said. “Many times we bond but also easily get frustrated when problems arise, so we have to learn to keep calm.” For the younger girls, being on a team with older girls sets an important example for them. “The older girls are welcoming and nice,” said Jayda Davis, a fourth grader on the program. “When I first came to the program one of the older girls taught me and was really patient.”

Lessons learned from the program extend to the girls’ daily lives as well. “My daughter was shy, but after a year in the program she is more outgoing,” said Neysa, the mother of a girl participating in Harlem Cheer. “It’s really good for the girls in different age groups to get a chance to unite.”

In addition to participating in a regular cheer season, Harlem Girls Cheer competes in statewide and nationwide competitions through its competition team, Harlem Roar. The Division 8 team placed third in the American Youth Cheer National Championship held in Orlando, Fl and the Division 10 teams placed first in the Empire State Youth Football and Cheer Competition.

Harlem Cheer’s reach doesn’t end with cheerleading. The program is a 360° one that puts an emphasis on education as well (the goal is for each cheerleader to maintain a B average or higher in school with the minimum requirement a C average) . “We had a finance group come in once, which taught the girls about investment, and a college counselor talked to the older girls about the college process,” said Russell. In its first graduating class, Harlem Cheer has three high school seniors who will all be attending college in the fall, combined the were accepted into 12 schools. The program also sends out a weekly newsletter with information about job opportunities, community service, and gymnastics programs. “We want to give the girls the opportunity to learn about as many things as possible,” she added.

While cheerleading is the key piece of this program, its multifaceted involvement in the girls’ lives teaches them other life skills, including leadership and learning to be a part of a team, as well as providing them with the tools necessary to succeed beyond the cheer floor.

Melina Asteriadis is a member of our team of junior journalists. She is an 11th grader at the Bronx HS of Science.

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