Mark Hayward's City Matters: Of dreams and good cheer
These late November nights offer no good reason to venture outside.
By 7:30, it has been dark for hours. Most of this week, low-level clouds have overtaken the sky, holding in dampness like a super-absorbent paper towel. Gives teenagers all sorts of reasons - Facebook, X-Box, even homework - to stay comfortable indoors in front of the warm glow of a video monitor.
But at 7:30 on Tuesday night, Danielle Wilcott, 15, jumped from her mom's kitchen table with the enthusiasm and aplomb of a cheerleader. She cradled a 3-pound coffee can whose makeshift label reads "Manchester East Cobras," and for the next 1½ hours she stood outside the Valley Street Stop and Shop. Wilcott wears a uniform with "Cobras" emblazoned across her chest, and she and a teammate politely prodded the few nighttime shoppers for a donation.
Their goal is large - Wilcott and 21 other girls need to raise $17,000. Their prize is larger - as New England champions, they are in line to compete in the American Youth Football National Cheer Competition. But their time is short - they need to be in Kissimmee, Fla., by Dec. 8.
"It's like a dream," said Wilcott, about the opportunity. "I've never been on a plane before, or to Florida."
The Cobras involve girls from all kinds of families, and $300 - the contribution has asked each family to provide - is beyond her mother's reach.
"When they told parents we had to come up with $300, my heart just dropped," said Diana McGuire, Wilcott's mother. She spoke inside the east Manchester apartment she shares with her daughter and two sons. She apologizes for the cold room; they've run out of heating oil. And she offered a seat at a neat kitchen table; her living room furniture was repossessed earlier this month for non-payment.
McGuire, 48, said she's struggled with medical problems ever since a motorcycle accident that took place when she was 22. She lost a leg in the accident and has undergone numerous operations since then.
She now works at the McDonald's on Hanover Street. She jumped at the opportunity this month for the overnight weekend shifts and the extra $1 an hour they pay.
McGuire said she receives housing assistance and food stamps, but she counts on the McDonald's paycheck to cover household items such as clothes and transportation. (Her van tops out at 20 mph because of a transmission problem.)
Still, when Wilcott asked to join Cobra cheer this year, she agreed. It would be her daughter's last year with Manchester East, so McGuire scraped up money to pay for the bows, socks, tops and other gear needed for Wilcott's uniform. But Florida?
Fundraising is the only way Wilcott and her squad will get there. They have organized a website through Fundly.com to accept donations. A breakfast is scheduled Sunday at the Wild Rover. But for the most part, the girls are "canning" - their term for standing outside stores and supermarkets with cans asking for donations.
"Cheer is like my passion," said Wilcott. She shows a big smile. Her lips encircle small, girlish-sized teeth, a trait that embodies an enthusiasm that hasn't been tamped down by her cold apartment or the dismissive attitude of many teenage girls. For in this season of good cheer, Wilcott has found her way to stay cheerful.
"I can express myself," she said. "We smile and have fun. It's usually just girls, so you don't have to worry about what guys think. You can pour your heart out."
It shouldn't be a surprise she'd go this far.
Helen Hernandez, the coach, credits Wilcott for being a leader on the team, whose members range from 11 to 15 years in age. She is always on time, attends all practices and helps the younger girls, said Hernandez. The coach has worked with Wilcott for three years.
"I think she's grown older and wiser. She feels she is a role model, someone the younger girls can look up to," the coach said.
That may be the case with fellow teammates, but there were few customers entering the Stop and Shop on a cold Tuesday night. Fewer still know the accomplishments or the dreams of the girl asking for a handout. Some fished out change or a bill or two. Others walked by and avoided eye contact. Meanwhile, Wilcott and her fellow cheer teammate cast a cautious eye on two adults hanging out in front of the nearby liquor store.
Next year, Wilcott plans to join the cheer squad at Central High School, where she is now a sophomore. Of course, she could have done so this year and been content with the school-district paying for all her cheer equipment and trips. But this year was her last opportunity to cheer with the Cobras, where she has felt at home for six years. Her mother expected a routine season.
"I didn't think about this at all," McGuire said. "They're amazing, they're in synch. Why'd they have to be so good?"
Mark Hayward's City Matters appears in the Thursday editions of the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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