For over 30 years, Harrowgate resident Michelle “Mimi” Martinez has coached the Amber Owls, a local cheer and dance team.
“There’s always a parent and a child looking for something affordable and to be a part of,” said Martinez, the coach and founder of the team. “ … That’s what keeps me going, knowing there’s always a young lady who wants to be a cheerleader.”
Martinez has coached hundreds of girls, teaching them life lessons alongside lunges and cartwheels. From making do with practicing in garages to now training in a well-equipped fitness center, the Owls have come a long way.
Back in 1991, if you weren’t playing baseball or basketball, there wasn’t much for a girl to do in Kensington, Martinez said.
“There was no cheer team in our neighborhood,” she added.
In an effort to change that, using the money she earned babysitting, she started a free cheer squad as the coach. The then 16-year-old recruited the girls she grew up with on her street and held practices at her home in either the backyard, basement, or wherever else there was room for her and the cheer team.
“We didn’t have a gym,” Martinez said. “We always performed in the house, a yard, or a lot. “Whatever we got, we did it. They never complained. Ever.”
As interest grew, she expanded the team from just her street to the surrounding area. Around that time, the cheer team started incorporating dance and performing in showcases.
According to Martinez, community support also played a role in the team’s improvements. As a graduation gift, her cross country coach donated cross country uniforms to her and the cheer team.
Through most of the ‘90s and 2000s, Martinez kept the cheer team going, even during the birth of her children, until she moved out of Pennsylvania in 2010.
‘I want every girl to be able to do cheer’
In 2011, Martinez returned to Kensington and brought the Amber Owls back in 2016 — with some difficulty at first.
“It took me a long time to get anybody to join,” she said. “The neighborhood changed; it was different. And then I started getting girls quite a bit. And they weren’t just coming from my neighborhood; they were from basically all over.”
Eventually, Martinez made the decision to charge a participation fee to cover the costs. However, affordability is still a priority. For example, there is no participation fee this season.
“I’m able to keep the prices low because my organization is not about money,” Martinez said. “I want every girl to be able to do cheer and make it affordable.”
In 2016, Martinez and the team were given permission to practice at Heitzman Recreation Center. For the next four years, the team had access to a gym with equipment and started participating in cheer competitions.
But, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the team lost their practice space. In the fall of 2021, Heitzman Rec temporarily closed for Rebuild, the citywide project to improve community spaces.
Despite those challenges, Martinez was able to keep her girls cheering. Just like in the ‘90s, Martinez and the team practiced at her home or in a garage.
In November 2022, Martinez and the Owls were given a new practice space at the Fortaleza Fitness Center in Hunting Park
Kensington Voice visited the girls at their new space and asked them about their experiences. They all shared things, like being happy to be a part of the Owls team, meeting new friends, and learning new tricks. One of the girls, Riley, said that being a part of the Owls taught her to be kind to others.
In the past few years, the team has received more public attention and performed at community events like the Harrowgate Civic Association’s seasonal festivals at Harrowgate Park. For Martinez, it’s exciting to see the support people have shown, not just for her but for the girls she coaches every year.
“Sometimes you feel like they forgot about these children,” she said. “And I don’t want to forget the children. Never. And that’s why I do what I do.”
Have a child (of any gender) between the ages of 7-15 interested in joining the Amber Owls? There is no participation fee this season. Sign-ups for the February-May season are still open. For more information, call 267-597-2446 or email MimiMartinez1374@gmail.com.
Editors: Zari Tarazona Designer: Zari Tarazona