At Heritage Middle School last week, 103 girls ages 4 through middle school learned the skills needed for cheerleading from some of the best.

The coaches who get the squads at HMS and Heritage High School ready to cheer on their sports teams every year — Julie Coker French, Jennifer Webb Childers and Connie Williams — led the camp that’s been held annually since 1989. That was the year French and Childers were seniors at HHS and looking for a fundraiser that would help take them to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

These three cheerleaders were all coached by Geneva Ledford, who instructed many high school girls in the sport of cheerleading. Ledford, who is 79, is coaching the squad at Walland Elementary, now in her third year. She retired from HHS but still wanted to instruct. She also coached at Eagleton Middle.

French, Childers and the others on that 1989 HHS cheerleading team did raise the money to fly to New Orleans, where they performed at the pre-game and halftime of the Sugar Bowl. They were chosen for the honor because of their skill level.

French went on to become a cheerleader for the University of Tennessee while Childers joined the dance team at Tennessee Tech. A third coach at last week’s cheerleading camp was Connie Williams. She also cheered at Eagleton Middle School and then moved over to being a majorette in high school at Heritage. She also attended UT and was a majorette there.

In the early days

“We started this little girls camp during mine and Jennifer’s senior year in high school,” French said, looking back. “That was 30 years ago.”

Ledford brought her 13 cheerleaders from Walland Elementary to this annual camp. So, too, did Eagleton Middle and HMS. French said cheerleaders in other schools always sign up; the three days of cheering, jumping, chanting, tumbling and dance are open to any girls who are interested.

At the first camp, French said there were about 25 girls who participated. At that time, it was Ledford who oversaw the details while French and Childers helped her run it as seniors on her squad. It’s no different today. French, Childers and Williams have combined to host the event and HHS cheerleaders teach the different disciplines.

Even after leaving HHS for college, French said she would come back and help with the camp. She was a cheerleader at UT from 1991-4.

“After a few years, the attendance was close to 200 girls,” French said. They are now seeing the daughters of girls they instructed.

Ready to cheer

The purpose of the camp hasn’t changed over the three decades. Teaching the younger ones how to be successful cheerleaders while also raising funds is why it continues. The money raised these days goes to the cheerleading program at HHS for uniforms and other expenses.

Ledford said it’s been awesome to see her cheerleaders from years ago now coaching where it began for them.

All of them have fond memories of their time at HHS and want these campers to have the same opportunities.

Because there is a fee involved, French said she makes sure the participating families get something valuable from the camp experience.

The campers are kept busy for three hours every day, this coach said.

In addition to getting a camp T-shirt, all participants have the chance to come back in the fall and cheer at a HHS sporting event, something they all look forward to, French said.

There are certainly many elements that make up cheerleading, including gymnastics. French said she started out as a

competitive gymnast and moved into cheerleading, like many do. She has now been coach for the squad at HMS for seven years and at HHS for four.

To say this is a family affair is an understatement. French has four children, Williams has four and Childers has two. All have come up through the same system. Williams’ daughter, Jenna Williams, cheers for HHS. Childers’ daughter, Cadi Childers, does the same. Two older daughters were HHS cheerleaders, too.

“We try to not only teach them cheerleading but also life skills,” Jennifer Childers said. Being a cheerleader requires discipline, responsibility and respect, she said.

Erin Ott and Jenna Williams are juniors on the cheerleading team at HHS. They were enjoying being camp leaders this past week. They have been cheerleading since sixth grade and remember attending this camp as much younger girls.

They looked up to the camp leaders the way these girls are looking to them. Both said they feel a responsibility to be the best role models.

Being a part of these former and current cheerleaders’ lives has been a blessing, Ledford said. She has seen them become leaders in the community, an experience that has kept her young and energetic.

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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