Hillsboro teen who endured bullying finds a home at The Gym-Nest

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DAVID ROZA - Jeffrey Dicintio takes a breather in between drills at The Gym-Nest, his home away from home in Hillsboro, where he is a member of the cheerleading team.Imagine you’re a freshman in high school and you’re nervous.

You’ve been called names, chased down hallways and bullied since you were in seventh grade. You’ve changed schools three times because of the harassment. You’ve even had to deal with urinary tract infections because you couldn’t go to the bathroom at school for fear of being shoved into the urinal by other kids.

And it’s all because you’re attracted to boys more than you are to girls.

Your name is Jeffrey Dicintio, you’re 15 years old — and during your Spanish final at Century High School one day you get a text message that will change your life. You’ve finally been invited to join the Gym-Nest All Star Cheer Squad.

“At first, I was thinking, ‘Uh-oh, I have to meet new people and they’re going to say stuff,” Jeffrey said months later on a Monday afternoon before practice in the Gym-Nest’s sweltering, blue-foam-carpeted facility in south Hillsboro. “But as soon as I walked in everybody was very friendly and introduced themselves.

“They accepted it, like ‘Okay, he’s gay, that’s not weird, that’s just something he is.’ They wanted me to be a good cheerleader, regardless of my sexuality.”

‘That’s me’

Gym-Nest was the first place Jeffrey, a Hillsboro resident, felt accepted since the Madras native came out in middle school. He “always had a feeling” he was different from some of the other boys, but “I didn’t have a word to connect it with until seventh grade,” Jeffrey recounted. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what ‘gay’ is? Yep, that’s me.’ by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DAVID ROZA - Tumbling moves by Jeffrey Dicintio happen under the watchful eye of coach Cari Aurich. Here, he practices a front tuck.

After that, the bullying started. “Other kids acted like, ‘Oh, now we don’t have to call you gay, now we have to bully you for being gay. I barely left my house through middle school and most of freshman year.”

Jeffrey’s life began a transformation last summer when he was inspired to join the cheer team by his 9-year-old sister Jemma, who had practiced gymnastics at the Gym-Nest since she was three. “I thought, ‘You know what? I want to be able to do a cartwheel, I want to be on cheer,’” he said.

However, Gym-Nest’s 15-member squad was full at the time, so Jeff practiced cheer techniques — such as tumbling, stunting, jumping and dancing — at home and at the gym until a spot opened up in February. A cheer member had been injured and the squad needed Jeff for the Oregon Cheerleading Coaching Association (OCCA) competition in March.

That was when he got the text during Spanish class. “The rest of the squad had been learning the routine we were going to perform for six months,” Jeffrey said. “I had one week.”

Fast progression

The teenager worked quickly to make up for his late start — and plunged in.

“Jeff progressed super-fast ... he went from not knowing how to do a cartwheel last summer to doing forward rolls and front tucks,” said head coach Cari Aurich. “It helps that he’s in the gym a lot but it’s also his personality — he has that drive to do anything, to be the best.”

Jeff pulled through at the OCCA competition, where his newfound squad beat two other teams and won Gym-Nest’s first national cheer title in the junior (Level 1) division.

“That was pretty incredible,” said Jeffrey. “I didn’t know much about the competition and suddenly it was like, ‘We won!’”

While Jeff is the only gay member of the Gym-Nest cheer squad, whose members range from 11 to 17 years old, he is not the only student to have found his niche there.

“They’ve been very accepting from the beginning,” said Alex Wizeman, whose daughter Teya is a member of the squad and has juvenile diabetes. “The kids and the coaches keep an eye on her. They know when to give her snacks or insulin to get her blood sugar back to normal.”

Even for Aurich, an experienced cheer coach, this squad stands out for its camaraderie.

“I’ve been coaching cheer for 12 years and this specific group of kids is very unique,” she said. “They all get along and they encourage each other every day at practice no matter how basic a skill someone is learning. And there’s no drama, which is hard to say for an older group of teenagers.”

Many people believe that all male cheerleaders are gay, but Jeffrey disagrees. “I’ve only met two other gay male cheerleaders at all the competitions I’ve been to,” he said. “Before I got to Gym-Nest, another team had turned me down because they were a ‘small Christian gym.’ They were very conservative.”

Costs up to $1,000

While cheer at Gym-Nest is a very accepting environment, it doesn’t come cheap.

“Between shoes, practice uniforms, competition uniforms, coaching fees, makeup and competition fees, it can cost up to $1,000 per kid for one season,” said Sherri Hert, assistant coach and treasurer for the cheer squad. “It’s a lot for a two-and-a-half-minute routine.”

To raise funds, the cheer athletes and their parents host events such as garage sales, bake sales — and a $10 breakfast day from 8 to 10 a.m. at the Hillsboro Applebee’s Friday, July 25. “Applebee’s doesn’t do breakfasts, so they allow the cheerleaders to come in and serve food,” said Hert.

Jeffrey has played a leading role in the team’s fundraising efforts.

“I’m pretty good at it. I have resources like the website Crowdrise,” he said. “I’ve used that a lot to fund my way through summer camps. Or I’ll write fundraising letters and my mom will send them out. She was a paralegal, so she has good business resources.”

by: COURTESY PHOTO - During a competition last spring, Jeffrey Dicintio lifted teammate Haylee Tyree. He colored his hair for the performance.Despite Jeffrey’s best efforts, fundraising for the squad has proved challenging. “A lot of companies we get in touch with would rather sponsor a high school softball team than a cheer team, because those softball players are ‘student-athletes,’ rather than just ‘athletes,’” said Jeffrey. “Everybody here is a student too, though.”

To help fundraise, Jeffrey also uses social media, where he has attracted quite a following on websites like Instagram.

“I have 30,000 followers, [and] people have come up to me at competitions and asked me for autographs,” he said. “Everybody comments on my facial expressions — I’m super fierce and I pop and give attitude.”

Gaining confidence

While fundraising for cheer isn’t easy, cheering at Gym-Nest has made life a lot easier for Jeffrey.

“Having this space has helped him so much,” said Jeffrey’s mom, Shawna Dicintio. “He has gained more confidence, he’s happier, he looks forward to things even after a rough day at school.”

For Jeffrey, the connection has been momentous.

“I like cheer because it’s exhausting, and it’s thrilling to put my heart out on the floor during a routine,” Jeffrey added. “But I wouldn’t like it as much if I wasn’t so welcomed here. It’s like going to a restaurant not only for the food but also for the friendly company and helpful waiters.

“We’re all so close, like a family.”

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