It takes a full-time commitment to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleader, but the rewards can be enormous.
The commitment, of course, is necessary to keep up with the countless practices, rehearsals, obligations and team events that comprise the job of a cheerleader. The main reward is just as obvious: Performing in front of tens of thousands of fans every game day.
Sometimes, however, the rewards come in smaller packages…and seem all the more meaningful because of it.
Such was the case this week, when a very caring group of Buccaneers cheerleaders made a difference in the lives of more than 20 young women in search of guidance and support.
On Wednesday, 15 members of the Buccaneer squad visited Busch Gardens in Tampa with groups from The Centre for Girls and Hope Children's Home for a fun day of entertainment and education. The event kicked off a year-long commitment by the team to support the two charities, a new initiative aimed at developing strong relationships between the cheerleaders and community agencies in Tampa Bay.
"Today is actually the first day that the cheerleaders are hanging out with the girls, and you can tell immediately that they're lighting up and that they're just really excited to have these women helping them and being there with them," said Linzy Wilson, director of development and community relations for The Centre. "And the fact that this isn't just one day, but that they're going to be volunteering every month with the girls, I can tell it really means a lot to them. They're all really excited about the opportunity."
There are five captains on the Buccaneers Cheerleaders squad, and this offseason each captain selected a charity on which the cheerleaders could focus their community service. The Centre and Hope Children's Home were two of the nonprofits that were chosen, and both are unique groups that could benefit from the cheerleaders' efforts.
"I think it shows a lot for the cheerleaders that they're getting out in the community and they're doing a lot to help these girls," said Wilson. "Quite a few of [the girls] are at risk, and at that 10-to-18-year-old age group where they're right in that transition to adulthood, so to have these older women to look up to is great."
The Centre for Girls is a program within The Centre, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling, employment preparation, substance abuse treatment, and summer programs for at-risk girls. Since 1968, Hope Children's Home has rescued nearly 5,000 children between the ages of two and 18 who have suffered from abuse and neglect. The charity provides guidance and support to help them reach their full potential as productive, responsible and caring members of society.
"The girls seem really excited to be hanging out with us," said Holly Sellers, a fifth-year cheerleader and one of the team captains. "We know we are really kind of role models to them, so for us to be able to come out and be a good role model and be able to remind them that it's important to stay in school, it's important to stay healthy, while we're doing fun stuff, it's a great thing."
On Wednesday, the girls from the two agencies were able to have fun and learn a few things about nature at the same time. The first mode of learning, a safari ride throughout the park's Serengeti Plain, included lions, rhinos, zebras and a variety of wildlife found only in Africa. The most memorable portion of the trek involved an up-close-and-personal encounter with giraffes, where the group discovered firsthand that the tall animal's favorite, and often only food, is lettuce.
"That was cool," said 14-year-old Hannah Lowe. "I've never fed a giraffe, so it was a really cool experience."
Next, the girls took part in a forensic lesson on evidence and DNA as part of the Animal Detective Agency. There, they were given the task of solving a faux crime by analyzing clues left by animals throughout the park. The eventual culprit: a lemur, the rare primate found only on the island of Madagascar, who showed off its exotic colors for the group with the help of an experienced staff attendant.
"To be outside with the animals and be with a bunch of people and your friends is a fun way of learning," added Lowe. "Very fun, very interactive, very up-close. You just get to see a lot of stuff that you typically don't get to do."
The group also stopped by the Egypt habitat, where they saw one of the park's newest animals, a cheetah, dash up and down a dirt path at blistering speed.
Of course, a trip to a theme park wouldn't be complete without the opportunity to enjoy a few of the attractions. Following lunch, the cheerleaders and girls set out on a mission to tackle some of the park's fiercest rides. The group enjoyed Kumba, Phoenix and the popular SheiKra roller coaster, which boast hair-raising 90-degree drops. SheiKra had the visitors screaming, but there were plenty of smiles to be seen, as well.
"I almost freaked when they picked me to go, because this is the first time hanging out with the Buccaneers cheerleaders," said Francheska Gonzalez, a participant from The Centre for Girls.* *"This was a big deal for me and my dad. My dad started freaking out and asking me all different questions, and said, 'You better get a picture with one of them.' They're just like normal people, like you and me. I'm going to tell my dad everything, every step that I took. I will tell him that I took pictures, got all of their autographs – it was a blast."
Every year, the Buccaneers cheerleaders make hundreds of appearances for nonprofit organizations locally, nationally and abroad. The 34-member squad, which includes athletes, businesswomen and full-time college students, regularly volunteers throughout the Bay area to promote the Buccaneers and give back to the community. The cheerleaders' outreach efforts include hosting cheer clinics, performing for our nation's armed forces and appearing at team community relations events throughout the year.
Wednesday's event proved memorable for both parties involved.
"We all love going out there and performing in front of people, but this is the main reason why we do this," said rookie cheerleader Kasey Harrington. "It's a good experience and it's nice to know that we're really interacting with these girls and getting to know them, and hopefully making some kind of positive impact in their lives.
"When you hear Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you don't want to just think about the football team and the NFL. You want to think that these people are really coming into our community and making a difference."