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A Pep Rally for the Soul, a Cheer for Self-Esteem


It isn't Anaheim Stadium. The roar of the crowd is only high-pitched giggles. Still, these L.A. Rams cheerleaders are giving it their all.

Sleek and muscled in their blue bike shorts and yellow Rams T-shirts, they glide across the gym floor.

A gaggle of teen-age girls--tall, short, skinny, chubby--dances along with cheerleaders Alisa Denmon and Rose Fernan dez, some tangling their toes in their sweat pants. "Walk 2-3-4 . . . Pivot, turn, pivot, turn . . . Smile big!"

It's a Saturday morning at the Dorothy Kirby Center in East L.A., a jail for juveniles, albeit a jail with cottages instead of cells.

The cheerleaders are here because they believe they can help a few girls--armed robbers, burglars, drug offenders--turn their lives around.

"Because they're so young, they still have a chance," says the County Probation Department's Mark Ward. He launched this volunteer effort, dubbed it Project First Steps and recruited the cheerleaders and other talent.

One Saturday each month, three to five cheerleaders teach the girls their basic dance routines, then sit down to talk.

To the girls, they are role models. It's not that they want to grow up to be cheerleaders. It's that they need to know they can be somebody.

First Steps' first steps were a bit wobbly. The girls thought the cheerleaders looked funny. And nobody in their neighborhoods danced like that. Says Denmon: "They don't watch football. It was foreign to them."

Center director Mary Dederick puts it another way: "They don't experience being cheerleaders in high school and going to proms." These were the bad girls. They were about looking tough, not pretty.

But the cheerleaders persevered. This day, 18 of the center's 40 girls show up. They are attentive, well-behaved, laughing readily and cheering for one another.

The boom box music is loud--Toni Braxton, Snoop Doggy Dogg, "Rump Shaker" by Wreckx-N-Effect.

After the physical workout, the girls collapse cross-legged on the floor. It's time for the message .

Ward, perched on the gym steps, says, "One day you're going to be like these ladies. They didn't come from Beverly Hills High. They didn't get a Porsche for their 16th birthday. It doesn't work like that, not for you and me."

Cheerleader Tara Tineal, who's a personal trainer and aerobics instructor, tells the girls that, even though they've "messed up," all's not lost. "You have to go through these things life gives you in order to become a stronger person."

Cheerleader Michele Lee says: "You think we don't understand. We do. I have a 15-year-old sister who was in a lot of trouble. But she's not a bad person. We're here just to let you know that there are people who care about you."

(They need that: Only 60% get regular family visitors. Some parents, Ward mentions, say flat-out, "You keep her. I don't want her.")

A collective screech interrupts the discussion as Rams starting tight end Troy Drayton ambles in. These girls may not know football, but they know a hunk when they see one.

They have questions: How old are you? (24). How much do you weigh? (260). Do you have a girlfriend? (No.) "Now you do!" shouts one girl.

Drayton tells them about growing up in a Pennyslvania project. "Nobody gave me a chance, but I believed in myself."

He also believes in women. (This jock took women's studies at Penn State.) To a girl who says she wants to be a cop, he says, "You can be chief of police."

For the cheerleaders, First Steps is a two-way street. Says Tineal: "I just wanted to get involved in somebody's life. Nobody was involved in mine."

When the others have left, the girls--about half of whom already have a child as well as a criminal record--talk.

Latasha, 15 (assault and battery), says she got in trouble by "not listening to my brain."

Tamiya, 16 (assault), tells of her dream of being a lawyer. If she weren't here dancing this morning, she says, she'd be in her room, crying.

Shawna, 17 (grand theft auto), wants to be a model and actress. Of the cheerleaders, she says, "They teach us how to open ourselves up. It feels good."

A central theme defines their stories: Falling in with the wrong crowd. Rebelling against authority. Giving up hope. Allison, 16 (grand theft auto), wanted to show her parents "because I thought they didn't care." Now, she dares at least to talk of being a marine biologist.

Daneshia, 15 (armed robbery), says: "Being here has taught me how precious life really is." She wants to be a criminal lawyer.

Pipe dreams? For some, sure. For others, maybe not.

To Dederick, "First Steps" is about creating expectations. She says of the girls, "We remember the things they did, but we forget what they didn't have."

High-Tech Ancient Gizmos

But where was it when we needed it?

That big bronze object on exhibit at the Asian Pacific Mart is not a cappuccino machine. It's a replica of the earliest known seismograph (circa AD 132).

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