After reading about the George Washington cheerleaders — the first School District of Philadelphia cheer team to earn a spot on the national stage — Inquirer readers stepped up, donating more than $30,000 in just a few days to ensure the kids can compete in January.
People with connections to the Northeast Philadelphia school were moved to chip. The politicians wanted to help or recognize the students. But mostly, people who donated to the high school squad were outsiders moved by the team’s talent and hard work, and by what the students represent to a city that badly needs good news.
Although the team is relatively new to competitive cheer and lacks many of the advantages of its peers, it has persevered through COVID-19 and steadily improved, earning a semifinal spot at states this year and a public offering, scheduled for January in Dallas.
“This feels like a real life movie, with the best of our young people on a national stage,” said Helen Gym, Member of the City Council, who will soon honor the team with a resolution. “I love this story, this team of young people who are finding joy and excellence in building this team of joy.”
Team members were learning new stunts and choreography at a two-day cheer clinic — paid for with months of their own fundraising — when the story was published and their campaign, administered by the Non-profit school system fund for the School District of Philadelphia. , exploded. Veronica Hayes and Michele Sorkin-Socki, their coaches, were bombarded by messages, calls, and notifications on social media.
“We were trying not to be on our phones, we were in camp, but the comments and positivity kept coming in,” Sorkin-Socki said. “We were so surprised by the celebration; it happened so fast.”
The $30,000 figure was the baseline for the team to bring to Dallas: money that will cover the basics – hotel, airfare, competition fees. But the generosity of those who reached in the last week allowed the team members to dream a little bigger.
They will also have pompoms (the team now does not have enough for each member), travel bags for students who now carry their equipment in garbage bags, and paid music royalties for routines and equipment of -competition, said the coaches.
The whole thing feels a little surreal to team member Erica Pierre.
“I never, never thought we would get this far,” said Pierre, a senior. “It hasn’t really hit me yet: we’re actually going on a plane with our team to Dallas.”
Antonios Pitsakis, the assistant principal who has been helping the coaches coordinate fundraising and the trip to nationals, said he never doubted that the team would find a way to nationals, but the speed with which with which he joined after Inquirer readers found out about the students. The plight was dizzying – especially for the children.
“They had brave faces, but deep down, they thought this wasn’t going to happen,” Pitsakis said. “It just goes to show, with all the things going on in the city, we give people hope.”
Even amid the joy of the achievement and the support the team is gathering, Tuesday’s shooting outside Roxborough High that claimed the life of 14-year-old football player Nicolas Elizalde and an injury to four more weighs heavily on the team and the school.
So, the cheer team is now raising money to benefit Roxborough. And although the demands on the team have decreased, the cheerleaders will still keep selling lollipops and donuts, too, to support themselves and others.
“Everybody has to do their part, and they will — they have a responsibility to the team,” Sorkin-Socki said.
“The financial pressure was great,” Hayes said. “And now it’s been removed, and it’s time to go in and put this to work, to focus on our athletes and not figure out how to get them to Dallas.”
Janet Rosenzweig graduated from George Washington in 1972 and is part of a committee planning her class’s 50th reunion. After reading about the cheer team, the reunion committee voted to donate $500. The team is a credit to the school, she said.
“We love the fact that they saw this opportunity to see the world a little bigger than Northeast Philadelphia,” Rosenzweig said.
Bob Brady, former congressman and chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Committee, reached out to the team the day he read about his plight. Brady wants to help with “whatever they need,” he said.
The George Washington cheerleaders, Brady said, “are representing our city and we want to make them proud – as proud as we are of them. They are worth it.”
Roland Williams is new to the squad, a football player recently recruited to help strengthen the team. He said he is in awe of how hard his teammates work, and excited to help them shine on a national stage. But now it is also bandaged that what they are doing makes people happy.
“It’s nice to think that everyone from the city is supporting us,” Williams said.