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Navajo girls got game

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GANADO, Ariz - Promising changes pop up on the sprawling Navajo Nation all
the time. Karigan Estates, opened in 2002, offers housing for middle-and
upper-income families that can be passed along to heirs. The new
development includes a homeowners' association not previously available.

But life on the nation can be prickly for some. According to the 2000
Census, about 40 percent live in deep pockets of poverty. Sixty percent
have no telephone service and 28 percent lack complete kitchen facilities.
Social villains like alcoholism, substandard housing, poor health care and
unemployment haunt a number of Navajos. Cracks in the family bond hammer
away at the children. Too often, they grow up repeating the cycle of family
dysfunction.

Enter Navajo Nation special education teacher Sharon Campbell from Ganado
Intermediate School. Campbell stands for change. In 2003, she assembled a
cheerleading squad, the Ganado Hornets, for middle-school girls. "I wanted
the students to have an after-school activity that was both fun and
athletic, so I started the cheer-leading squad. If they feel good about
themselves they are less likely to experiment with drugs or alcohol. I want
them to grow up and succeed in life."

Initial reactions were impressive. The first year, 12 girls joined the
Hornets, originally to rally tribal sports teams. Campbell molded the young
cheerleaders into champions through long hours of dedication and
afterschool practice. "They had to learn about functioning as a team, not
just as individuals. Otherwise, we wouldn't get very far," Campbell said.

The Hornets are more than fun and games. Campbell maintains strict
standards for team membership. Not every student was cut out for the team,
and several dropped out. "Every student must do well in school. If anyone
gets into trouble, that is grounds for dismissal. I try to instill tribal
pride, human dignity and teamwork in my girls."

The team quickly blossomed under Campbell. Besides performing at local
events, the Hornets talent was recognized off the reservation. That first
year, the Hornets were invited to a cheerleading competition at the Fiesta
Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. Winners would earn the chance to walk in the hugely
popular Fiesta Bowl parade in downtown Phoenix. "We didn't even place,"
Campbell said. "The girls went home with sagging spirits. They were very
disappointed. But we learned from that experience. We found out we could
compete. We came home with more determination to win."

Let down but not thwarted, the Hornets pressed forward with their eyes on
future prizes. Under Campbell's shrewd guidance and astute leadership, the
Hornets excelled. By the next Fiesta Bowl competition in 2004, the Hornets
won second place, a stunning achievement for a new team that had failed to
place the year before. They racked up other accomplishments as well.
Invited to Las Vegas by the Cheerleaders of America in February 2004, the
Hornets won first place in their division. In December 2004, they performed
at the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas before a packed stadium of 60,000
people.

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Family and local community have also rallied behind the Hornets and their
string of victories. Ruth Yazzi, mother of the team's 11-year-old
co-captain, said, "My daughter has become more independent. The team has
helped her develop into a fine young lady and I'm so proud of her
accomplishments. It's boosted her self-esteem." Because her daughter had
never traveled far beyond the reservation, Yazzi said the field trips
taught her daughter about diversity. "She learned about other people and to
respect differences."

Team involvement has also broadened Yazzi's own life. "I knew nothing about
fund-raising until I met Sharon. Since then, I've found how to lean on
people for money. I'm totally behind Sharon and all her efforts to help the
girls and our tribe."

Campbell's efforts caught school Principal Keith Petruzzio's attention.
"The Hornets are incredible young ladies. Sharon has helped them evolve and
mature. It's given them important lessons in responsibility and
discipline." Campbell is obviously a respected leader. "The families
wholeheartedly back Campbell's efforts and appreciate her guidance. She
takes cheerleading to a whole new level. We value everything she does for
our students and our school," he said.

George Hardeen, official spokesman for the Navajo Nation, agreed. "It's
great these girls are going to national competitions. Due to the nation's
geographic isolation, Navajo children's talents are often overlooked.
Seeing our young people recognized and rewarded for their achievements is
very gratifying. The Hornets are getting the recognition they've earned
through hard work."

More glory lies in the Hornets' future. They recently won an invitation to
the prestigious national competition, the Ultimate COA National in Orlando,
Fla. that will take place during April 2006. But getting there will be a
struggle. Costs involve airfare, hotels and meals for nine girls, Campbell
and three chaperones.

To help the Hornets reach their dream, consider making a donation to:
Ganado Intermediate School, Sharon Campell, P.O. Box 1757, Ganado, AZ
86505.

According to an old Crow proverb, "You already possess everything necessary
to become great." Campbell reinforces this valuable lesson to the young
ladies on the Navajo Hornets every day.

Debra J. White is a former social worker who volunteers for Maricopa County
Animal Care and Control. She is also a pet therapist and visits homeless
children with one of her adopted dogs. She is a freelance writer and the
author of "Nobody's Pets" (www.4-footedfriends.com), a novel about humane
education.