North Plainfield HS: The full story
By Brianne Carlon
When Jessica Figueroa was in eighth grade, she watched the cheerleaders at North Plainfield HS in New Jersey closely. “What they did looked complicated, but they really got the crowd going,” she says. “They were the ones who made the game exciting. I looked up to them and knew one day I wanted to have people look up to me, too.”
Now a senior and a co-captain of the North Plainfield cheer team, Jessica, 17, has provided many reasons for others to admire her. In fact, every athlete on the team has, due in large part to their overwhelming commitment to community service. For the past four years, the team has taken time to honor those who lost their lives in the September 11, 2011, tragedies by holding memorials at all three sites. “This horrible event happened [during our lifetime],” says Christianna Blue, 17, head captain. “It’s important to keep their memory alive so no one forgets what happened to our nation.”
Dedication to Others
Two weeks following 9/11 in 2009, the NPHS cheerleaders ended up visiting the site where Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, PA, about 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. While laying flags down during a rainstorm, they didn’t realize they were being watched. “Out of the corner of my eye I saw these kids with big flags,” says Anthony Mussari, PhD., who happened to be taking footage of the sight. “I sensed something rich there, and taped about two and a half minutes of video,” he says. What came of this chance encounter was Visiting Shanksville in the Rain, a documentary about the Flight 93 tragedy. “It was an emotional experience,” Jessica says about being part of the film. “It made us closer as a team; it put things into perspective for us.”
Mussari followed up with a visit to the high school, thinking he’d get a few minutes of footage. “It turned out to be a year of visits where I spent time with the cheerleaders in classrooms and band rooms, at competitions and banquets and on buses and tours.” The footage will now be used for another documentary called Cheer for America, and the NPHS cheerleaders will be featured in a follow-up documentary, which will be screened in Shanksville on or around September 11, 2011. “They will also be in the book my wife and I are writing about traveling across America,” Mussari says. “When you talk with these young women, there’s a genuine sense of giving and caring that I haven’t seen in another group like this.”
The squad also visits the site of the Flight 800 memorial in Montoursville, PA. In 1996, the flight exploded moments after takeoff, crashing into the Atlantic Ocean and killing everyone onboard, including 16 students from Montoursville. “We’ve been leaving flowers at the [victims’] graves anonymously every year,” says Jessica. “In 2009, the parents caught us.” That led to the planning of a brunch with family members who lost loved ones on the flight.
All community service is voluntary, never mandatory, but the athletes are more than willing to participate. “Serving the community is immensely important to each girl and viewed differently by each of them,” says Coach Skip Pulcrano. “The common thread is passion and compassion. It’s a special kindness to help others.” The team has logged more than 40,000 cumulative community service miles, making it obvious why several people have said they give them “hope for the future.” “These young women show their patriotism, as well as their sympathy for those who’ve lost loved ones,” says Jerard Stephenson, North Plainfield HS principal. They’ve also volunteered at a local food pantry and collected clothes for victims of the Haiti earthquake, among other efforts.
And the team has been rewarded for its service. It won the AmeriCheer National Community Service Team of the Year award—twice (in 2007 and 2008). “We were proud,” Jessica says, “but we didn’t even know we were doing so much. Cheerleading brings out the best in us, because it gives us more responsibility in caring for others.” Principal Stephenson knows this to be true. “They don’t do it to win awards,” he says. “They do it to help. It’s an expectation now that if you want to be a part of this team, you need to be willing to give back. It’s built in.”
The squad was also recently presented with the 9/11 National Remembrance Flag, created by Steve and Joanne Galvin to honor heroes of 9/11. It was presented to the girls by Joanne at a dinner just prior to the Visiting Shanksville documentary premier in September 2010. “This is probably the most important and special honor my cheerleaders have received in all my 41 years of coaching,” Coach Pulcrano says.
Bring on the Competition
When it comes to competing, the NPHS squad feels confident about its training. “We’ve accomplished a lot this year,” Jessica says. Just a few short years ago, the team’s most difficult stunts were Extensions and Basket Tosses. Now, after practicing three times a week for two hours, the team has reached a new level. “We’ve conquered more complicated stunts, including full-downs from Extensions, and have created more intricate routines, too,” she says. And it must be working. “After a game or performance,” Christianna says, “people usually come up to us and say this is the best we’ve looked in years.”
While their main priorities are obviously school spirit and community service, the team takes October 15 through November 30 of every season to learn competition routines and compete. “We like the short competition season because it’s a challenge that pushes us to our limits,” says co-captain Monica Ramirez, 17. “Everyone is always ready to take the next step and is never scared to try something new.” Christianna agrees that practice and unity are contributing factors to the team’s success. “So many of us haven’t missed a practice in two years; we have an unbreakable bond,” she says. “We practice at such a fast pace that there’s no room for fooling around. Everything we’ve worked for has led up to this competition season.”
Let’s Hear It for the Boys
This year, the NPHS Canucks are trying something that hasn’t been done in a handful of years: Two boys have been added to the team. Paul Agui and Guedis Cardenas, both 17, are rounding out the 20-member varsity squad this season. “I wanted to prove that stereotypes about male cheerleaders are wrong,” Guedis says. “In the end, it’s your opinion that matters.” While he’d been on the wrestling and tennis teams, Guedis had never cheered before this year. “It’s been great so far,” he says. “Everyone has been so kind and patient. They’re extremely encouraging when I need to learn something.” This idea of community and support is what Guedis says is his favorite part of being on the squad. “When someone lands a twist-down she’s been working hard for, we all cheer for her,” he says.
Being on the team this year has given the guys a new perspective on cheer and their responsibilities and efforts. “A lot of people don’t know how much cheerleaders do behind the scenes,” Guedis says. “There’s community service, fundraising, practice and competitions. Cheerleaders help the community not to gain praise, but simply to do good.” And the girls are thankful for this new-found perspective. “After doing what we do every year, it gave the boys a new respect for cheerleaders,” Monica says. “And it creates a different vibe having them on the team; it’s certainly nice having their help!”
Squeezing In Some Fun
Between volunteering and competing, you wouldn’t think there’d be much room left for Friday night football games—or eating or breathing. But you’d be surprised. “We’re a school spirit team first,” Coach Pulcrano says. “Cheering on our sports teams is our main priority.” Football games are one of the squad’s favorite parts of cheer. “The crowd on a Friday night is awesome,” Christianna says. “When we do a cheer or stunt, how the crowd responds is fun and encouraging.”
Before each home game, the cheerleaders take time to pump up the football players. “We decorate the players’ lockers and bake treats for them,” Christianna says. The football players also get a chance to show their appreciation for all the spirit team does. “They give us a gift at the end-of-season banquet,” she says. “It connects the football players with the cheerleaders in a nice way.” The players and cheerleaders participate in a tradition together during away games, too. “On the bus, no one’s allowed to speak a word, not even a whisper, until the first right or left turn,” Jessica says. “Then we yell the cheer, ‘We’re Gonna Win Tonight!’ It really pumps everyone up.”
But there’s one tradition reserved just for the cheerleaders: sleepovers! Before competitions or big trips, like the ones to Shanksville, the team gathers at one of the girls’ houses for a night of fun. Sometimes they go to the movies and other times it’s just entertainment and games at home. Either way, Christianna says, “it brings everyone together as a team.”
A True Team
“All the young ladies and gentlemen on the [NPHS] team are great cheerleaders,” Principal Stephenson says, “but they’re also leaders in school, whether it’s through National Honor Society, the environmental organization or as class officers. Plus, they also have a commitment to giving back to the community.”
Through their actions and leadership positions, Jessica and the rest of the NPHS team have achieved their goal of becoming role models. “We don’t let cheerleading be just about competition,” Jessica says. “Cheerleaders should lead by example. We show our support for others. It’s the only way to be successful.”