BERWYN – On Facebook, there’s a picture of Leila Cleofe as a young girl in a burgundy-colored singlet. Her hair is tied back in a ponytail, her wispy bangs brushing against her eyes. With a big smile, she proudly shows off her small gold trophy.
Up in the left-hand corner of the photo the phrase “wrestle like a girl,” stands just as bold as Cleofe.
“We don’t want to tell our girls that they can’t do anything,” said Cleofe, now a mother and founder of the wrestling program at Heritage Middle School in Berwyn. “We want them to believe that they can do whatever it is. And if this is something that they’re interested in, we should support that and we should continue to let them explore everything there is to offer.”
That word – “support” – is key. When Cleofe looks back to her years on the mat, she can’t help but think about her father, who was more than just a cheerleader on the sidelines.
“He supported me throughout high school and college,” said Cleofe, a sixth-grade science and STEAM teacher at Heritage. “He would take me to wrestling tournaments. He would coach me. We had a wrestling mat in my garage growing up.”
Taking a cue from her father, Cleofe sought to offer that same care, compassion and love to her young athletes. She wanted to give students a chance to try something different. That’s the reason she started the program, which brings in students from both Heritage and Freedom Middle School.
As a coach, Cleofe learned that giving children the opportunity to try new things is crucial to their growth, but the larger conversation, especially surrounding sports, is accessibility.
From joining the team to purchasing the uniforms, playing sports can be costly, she said. At Heritage and Freedom, more than 75% percent of the students come from low-income families, according to the 2018-19 Illinois Report Card.
Earlier this month, Cleofe launched a fundraising campaign through DonorsChoose, a crowdfunding site, with the hope of purchasing eight pairs of wrestling shoes. Even the cheapest pair of wrestling shoes can cost up to $50, she said.
“I wanted to make sure that we had a few pairs on hand that the wrestlers could use,” she said. “When you get into the tournaments, if you go on to really commit to wrestling, then you’ll need to have practice using those shoes.
“I wanted them to at least feel like they had that,” Cleofe continued. “Getting the equipment for wrestling can be hard because it’s expensive. I wanted to make sure that our students have access to everything, so they don’t feel like they’re just kind of half doing it. I want them to feel like they’re really part of the sport.”
As of Nov. 6, Cleofe’s nearly $500 goal was met, but she is still accepting donations to help financially support her team’s needs. This year, Cleofe is looking to replace some of their mats, as well as create team shirts to represent their school.
With the wrestling season underway, Cleofe and her team are gearing up for a new season. Their first practice is expected to take place the week after Thanksgiving break.
As Cleofe gears up and preps for an informational night, she is reminded of her father and the impact that wrestling had on her. Her experiences allowed room for growth, confidence and self-discovery, important lessons that she would like to pass down to her athletes.
“That’s why I value [this] so much,” Cleofe said of the wrestling program, adding that she has one message for parents: support “your girls or your boys in whatever they do.”
For information on Cleofe’s fundraising efforts or to make a monetary donation, visit donorschoose.org and search “Step to the Line: Shoes for D100 Wrestlers.”