Coach Denise Harris, Saddleback College cheer advisor and coach, collects items for the homeless with her squad during practice.
As she sits on the ground of the gymnasium floor— two white plastic laundry baskets by her side—socks, hats, mittens, scarfs, blankets, gloves, toothbrushes and toothpaste fill the containers. Denise Harris and her squad of Saddleback College cheerleaders collect items for the homeless.
Harris began cheering as a young child after her family moved to California. She cheered at Los Alisos Intermediate School, El Toro High School, Saddleback College as a captain of the squad and then as a professional for the Los Angeles Rams.
She landed her dream job as a cheer coach at Trubuco Hills High School at the age of 23, just after marrying and she still coaches at the school after 20 years. She’s also been coaching for 18 years at Saddleback College and she says she loves it so much.
The coach and her cheer squad have participated in three philanthropies this year. This time she says they are donating for a club on campus called The Dark Knights, who collect and deliver warm items and food to the homeless on Skid Row in Los Angeles during the early hours of Christmas morning, all before sunrise and before returning to their own families.
“It’s a big thing for me because I think the girls all need to see at this age when they’re struggling to pay rent, make their car payments and buy their own clothes because they are out living on their own,” Harris said. “It opens their eyes to let them see that you really don’t have it that bad, you feel like you have it bad, but there is somebody out there that has it way worse, so I like that it opens their eyes to that.”
In the last few weeks, the cheer squad came together as they donated items with ASG’s “Adopt a Family.” Each year, ASG selects a family to help make Christmas possible for those who may not have it otherwise. Toys, clothing and personal items like purses are carefully selected for a family.
“People sign up and it’s usually a single mom who can’t afford to buy stuff for her kids and she’ll list what they want and we buy it for them,” Harris said.
Even when it is not the holiday season, the squad is encouraged to give. They collected food as part of a canned food drive for student veterans on campus.
“Our student veterans that have come home and are in some way needy of extra help, so we collected and did a food drive and collected tons of food for them, so I was really proud of the girls for that,” Harris says.
Harris says one of the biggest obstacles she faces as a coach is retaining her cheerleaders. She says at the college level it can be tough because things come up in students’ lives and some cannot stay on the squad because they have to take a job or transfer last minute.
But despite the challenges the team faces, the team make it work and end up thriving by the end of the season. She says she loves seeing a woman who has minimal skills at the beginning leave Saddleback College with more advanced skills. She enjoys seeing the growth and progression of a student. And she also loves seeing women from different high schools who do not know each other, come together and end up as lifelong friends.
Harris is proud of her squad and gets teared up when she talks about them. She has been coaching at Saddleback College for nearly 20 years, including coaching her own two daughters.
“I love them. They turn out to be like my daughter’s and my kids and my sisters and I just love them they are so different. All of their personalities are so different at this level, that it’s so much fun to experience their lives and see, so I love it.” Harris says.
Harris coaches some cheer athletes from high school through college. Saddleback College freshman Tatum Redmond, 18 has had Coach Denise for five years.
“I’ve been with her through high school and then now, but yeah, she’s a motherly figure for sure. I know I can trust her with everything, she’s always there, she’s always been just a joy and she always makes things super fun for us,” Redmond says.
The cheer coach is big on philanthropy and being there for her students, but she also likes to have fun with her students. Saddleback College Cheerleader Jody Cuzzy says her coach will even come down and do the sideline dances with her cheer squad during Homecoming and Sophomore night.
“It’s just the best experience to have your coach dancing with you. It just means that she really loves what she does and that she really cares about us and likes to do things with us, rather than just coach.” Cozzy says.