This story originally appeared in the Kansas City Star June 29, 2007

Cheer camp teaches young girls enthusiasm, life lessons

As a former NFL cheerleader and as a pre-K teacher, Lynn O'Brien knows how to teach young girls what it takes to be a cheerleader. It's a Thursday morning, and a group of aspiring cheerleaders are practicing for their first performance.

With their poms hanging at their sides, they fidget as they wait for their cue. As the music begins, the girls lift their heads and raise their hands to the beat. They shimmy, twirl and clap as Hannah Montana sings out the lyrics to 'Pumpin' Up the Party.' Some of the cheerleaders step off beat, or just stop mid-song to watch as their small purple poms rustle and sparkle in their hands.

Their performance isn't perfect, but as the cheerleaders shout 'Party now!' to mark the end of the song, their choreographer has nothing but encouragement for the group. This was about having fun -- not perfection. 'You guys, that was so good,' Lynn O'Brien says as the girls, ages 3 to 9, gather around her. 'I am so proud of you.'

Since Monday, the girls enrolled in the Lynn O'Brien Cheer and Dance Camp had been learning a dance routine and several cheers. They had to be ready for Friday, when they performed their routine before the T-Bones game.

For the past five years, O'Brien, an Overland Park resident, has been directing cheer camps around Kansas City. One of the camps is in Lenexa this year. As a former NFL cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints Saintsations and as a pre-kindergarten teacher, she has both the knowledge and the patience needed to teach a group of young girls what it takes to be a cheerleader. As the girls get ready to practice their next cheer, O'Brien offers some tips. 'I want to see lots of smiles and sharp arm movements, OK,' she says. As she leads them through the cheer, the girls try to mimic her and shout, 'Roll it. Now shake it. Vic-tor-y let's take it!'

Their practice is occasionally interrupted by potty breaks and a few minor owies -- real and imagined -- that needed kisses before the girls would agree to head back to the dance floor. Clair Commodore and her friend Annie Washburn, who are both 9, were the oldest in the group, and they helped the younger girls find their spots on the floor and learn their moves. After over an hour of practice, O'Brien gathered the girls around for a talk. So far this week, she had given the girls talks about having a healthy body image, nutrition, self-esteem, and giving back to the community. As the girls sprawled around her, she asked, 'What is it that makes a person pretty?' Several answers were offered up. Pretty hair. Nice clothes. Beautiful body.

'If you talked about someone just because of how they look, how would that make them feel?' she asked. 'It would make them sad,' Annie said. 'Yeah,' O'Brien said. 'Everybody is different in a different way. Their skin color or their hair may be different, but everybody has a heart and a soul, and everyone has feelings.'

As they finished their discussion, the girls lined up for a sprinkling of sparkles on their cheeks. Even if the girls forget their cheers in a few weeks, O'Brien said it didn't matter. She just hopes her lessons about being healthy, happy and generous is what sticks with the girls. 'The things that they learned, they're going to carry it with them their entire life,' she said.