Each Tuesday evening sophomores Abbie Thiebaut and Aubree Smith take a break from their typical weeknight routines to do something a little different—cheer leading. Thiebaut and Smith pack into Smith’s car, making sure they have the necessary materials in tow, they and make the five minute drive to Central Christian Church.
Smith and Thiebaut coach a cheerleading squad of five kindergarten and first-grade girls through the Huntington Upward program.
Upward is “the world’s largest Christian sports league for youth athletics,” according to the Upward Sports website. The Huntington Upward program was started by College Park Church in 2003 and over the past eleven years, the program has outgrown College Park’s facilities and has expanded to area churches, including Central Christian and Faith Community.
The Upward program provides basketball and cheer leading for all boys and girls from kindergarten through seventh grade.
Besides Thiebaut and Smith, seniors Andrew Frischman and Sam Bray coach a basketball team of third and fourth-grade boys and girls.
This is Frischman’s second year coaching with Upward, a decision he made because he said he wanted to get more involved at College Park, the church he normally attends in Huntington during the school year.
“I realized that it would be an opportunity to share Christ and my love of basketball with kids,” Frischman said. “After coaching for a year, however, I found out that basketball isn’t really even that important.”
Many of the students come from low-income families, which provides coaches with opportunities to make an “impact,” Thiebaut said.
“I think it’s been really cool to personally invest in their lives,” Smith said. “A lot of them come up and give us hugs every time they see us just because they don’t get that personal contact at home.”
Besides providing positive role models and athletic skill-building, the Upward program emphasizes Christian values.
“Upward is a program that is designed to reach kids’ hearts for Jesus through sports,” Joy Hersey, a recent graduate and the Upward cheer commissioner, said. “Every practice, the coach gives a short devotional that revolves around different Christ-like characteristics and what those look like when applied to our everyday lives.”
This season’s lessons have revolved around honesty, Smith said. Each week she and Thiebaut lead a devotion that asks the children to share life stories, gives them a memory verse and ends with prayer both from the kids and coaches.
These lessons are provided by Upward, so there is not too much preparation each week, Thiebaut said. Typically, she and Smith spend a half hour preparing before practice, making sure they know the cheers they will need to lead.
On Saturday mornings, Thiebaut and Smith drive to Central Christian, arriving by 8:30 a.m., which is the only downside to volunteering with Upward, Smith said.
During halftime, a speaker gives a message that focuses on the characteristic that was discussed during that week’s practice.
After each game, the coaches award “stars” to the players or cheerleaders. The stars come in five different colors and can be ironed on to the kids’ uniforms. Each star represents a different award, respective to basketball or cheer leading, such as “Best Offense” or “Best Spirit,” or, for both sports, the “Christ-like” star.
At the end of the season, a special speaker comes to present the Gospel, which both players and family members hear, Hersey said. This season, the Gospel will be presented March 23.
An Upward season lasts ten weeks. Students like Frischman, Bray, Thiebaut and Smith commit a few hours a week to the program.
“It would be great if more students from Huntington would volunteer in this way,” Frischman said. “It is a great opportunity to serve others and share the love of Christ.”
It is a challenge to find volunteers for the program each year even though the university is right next door with hundreds of students, Hersey said.
“College students are energetic and fun,” she said. “They have new ideas and can contribute a lot to a team or squad. Being an Upward coach is a perfect opportunity to do that.”