“My friends used to do it and I begged my mom to start,” Henderson recalls of how she first got involved in the activity. “I just fell in love with it. I loved going out there and performing, the traveling to compete against other teams and stuff.”
It didn’t hurt that Henderson’s group was adept at what they did. Her squad won the California state title and earned the right to advance to the national championships in Las Vegas, although they ultimately decided not to make the trip.
For more than a year, Henderson immersed herself in the activity until, in 2005, her family decided to move from California to Powell. For a 10-year-old girl with a love of competitive cheering, it may as well have been a move to the Dark Ages.
While Henderson’s opportunity to cheer vanished with the move, her desire continued to smolder just beneath the surface. When her freshman year of high school arrived, she immediately took advantage of the opportunity to join the Powell High School cheer squad. Through her freshman and sophomore years and into her junior year of school, Henderson was a fixture on the sidelines, displaying school spirit, exhorting students and fans to yell and cheering on the Panthers at every turn.
Behind the scenes, Henderson faced a battle. The teen was a victim of what she describes as “verbal bullying.” At first, she tried to ignore it. Then she tried to live with it. By early in her junior year, she’d simply had enough, and so had her mother, Kim Riedinger. The pair decided to withdraw Brittney from PHS and enroll her in alternative schooling.
“I had over $6,000 in bills from emergency room visits the previous year that were linked to the stress of her being bullied,” said Riedinger. “I couldn’t do that again. As a parent, your main priority is making your kid safe and happy, and that’s how we had to do it. Brittney wasn’t 100 percent innocent, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to do the things that they did. It was a matter of keeping her safe.”
Once again, the girl with a love for cheering suddenly found herself unable to do what she loved the most. This time, she wasn’t willing to let the activity slip away.
“It sucked, because that was my life,” Henderson said of cheering. “I decided I wouldn’t let others stop me from doing what I wanted to do.”
Knowing firsthand that Powell lacked an option for young girls interested in cheering, the teen took it upon herself to try and be that option.
“It was just a random idea that hit me one day,” Henderson said. “The more I thought about it and talked to my mom, the more I thought ‘why not?’.”
“She was watching some cheer shows on TV and she said that it would be really cool to do that,” Riedinger recalled of the moment. “It just rolled from there, and I decided to back her 100 percent because cheer has been her life. I thought if she’s capable of giving these girls the confidence they need and to make them a team, I’m going to support that as a parent.”
Initially, Henderson approached the Powell Recreation District about the possibility of offering a cheer clinic. She said she was informed there wouldn’t be enough interest to offer it as a program. She wasn’t buying it.
“As a little girl, everyone thinks of being a cheerleader at some point,” Henderson said. “People look up to them. We’ve got clog and dance, but cheering is a different sort of activity and lots of people want to try it out.”
Undaunted by the initial no, Henderson continued searching for locations suitable for holding cheering and willing to allow her to do so. The Powell VFW agreed to give Henderson the space to practice. All she needed now were kids interested in learning.
As it turns out, that proved to be the easy part.
“It wasn’t hard to attract kids,” said Henderson, who began by sending fliers home with students at area elementary schools. “I got lots of feedback off Facebook as well.”
In a matter of just months, Henderson has attracted a group of more than 40 youth, ranging in age from 4 to 16. Some come all the way from Lovell to spend 90 minutes two nights per week learning the finer points of cheer.
“I was surprised by the amount of interest that’s sprung up in such a short period of time,” Henderson said. “But there are a lot of moms who have cheered, so they help out sometimes. I have old friends that I cheered with off the PHS team that come to help out with some of our stunting.”
Brittney’s mother, Kim, is also always present for adult supervision and to help handle the money — a $20 monthly fee participants pay. The group recently held a candy sale in the hope of getting uniforms and will also be holding a benefit dog wash at the Pampered Paw this Saturday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. to raise money for that purpose.
Currently, Henderson spends practice time teaching basic dances, kick and jumps that form the tools of the cheerleader’s trade. Once safety mats arrive, more stunting will be added. Henderson divides the class into three groups based on age, experience and ability.
“I try to teach them routines so they can have fun and to give them something to do,” Henderson said.
The group is also practicing so it can perform in the various parades that take place throughout Park County in the summer months. Traveling to cheer competition in Montana is also a possibility.
Through it all, Henderson has had to accept a change in her role as it relates to the activity, one that emphasizes the ‘leader’ component of cheerleader.
“It’s a lot different,” Henderson said of teaching. “It’s weird to be instructing and not performing. I do wish sometimes that I could be out there doing it with them.”
And while she’s happy to be sharing her love and knowledge of cheering with the girls she teaches, the 17-year-old also makes certain to share one other life lesson.
“In practice, I stress getting along,” Henderson said. “We’re a bully-free zone. I want it to be a fun environment where girls can be safe and escape from anything that’s going on at home or at school. I won’t put up with bullying, because that’s what caused me not to be able to cheer.”
Her mother agrees.
“I really enjoy watching how the older girls interact with the little ones,” said Riedinger. “They treat them like little sisters and watch out for them and protect them. I’m just so proud of how Brittney is handling it and what she’s able to do with these girls. I think she’s found something that she is really meant to do.”