As I came off the basketball court, I heard someone sneer, “Cheerleaders! What a bunch of losers.” Never one to back down from a fight with my three brothers, I took umbrage and went face-to-face with this dweeb, a pimply-faced sixteen-year-old boy.

“It takes talent and a lot of energy to get out there and do what we do! It’s a sport just like any other.”

Stepping away from me, either because I was in his personal space or, perhaps, because he noticed my fisted left hand and my eyes on his nose, he grumbled, “You freaks are no athletes.” And with that, he ran away.

I’ve always loved sports. In junior high during the 1960s, I was the catcher on our school’s softball team, chest protector (though there wasn’t much to protect), mask, and all. I also played on the volleyball team. But the one sport that always sang to me was cheerleading. Beginning in the seventh grade, I held my first pom-pom and continued jumping up and down, doing side splits in the air, and screaming at the top of my lungs until I was a junior in high school.

I took my job seriously over those years, training, learning new routines, and cheering those who played on the court to victory. In my mind, being a cheerleader met all the requirements of an athlete. But as the years unraveled, I began to see being a cheerleader as much more than any sport. A cheerleader can be the one thing that helps separate the winners from the losers.

Over the course of my life, I’ve had many cheerleaders inspiring my victories. As a child—my parents. Not only were they the only adults sitting in the stands at every game, whether I was playing or cheering, but they were constantly encouraging me to greatness. Time and time again, when I was in doubt, in unison I heard, “You can do this. Don’t give up.”

I’ve even had countless friends and employers believe in me when I didn’t see my own value. Let’s face it, when someone sees something special in you, it lifts you up, makes you feel powerful and ultimately determined to thrive. But there’s a growing subset in our population that seem to have lost all their cheerleaders: the homeless.

Okay, I’m a sucker when I see someone down and out. If I have a little extra in my purse, I share. Or, better yet, I buy them something to eat. I decided long ago I didn’t want to judge what they did with it. That was their journey. I just wanted to create an act of kindness. But lately, before handing over my spare change, I find myself wanting to talk to them. We all have a story.

Not too long ago, I found an old woman sitting in the doorway of a closed store in San Francisco. Huddled deep within to guard against the cold, she looked at me and smiled as I passed. Smiling back, I walked on with my daughter, Lauren, but decided to return when I was told she was a fixture on Chestnut Street.

“You must have known I wasn’t feeling well,” she began after I asked her if she’d eaten anything. Holding up a squashed granola bar, I pulled a twenty out of my wallet, asked about her health, then told her to get something decent to eat. I hoped to see her again on my weekly visits, but I’ve never seen her since.

It’s tough to see people on the street with their dirty hands reaching toward you. It’s even worse to witness them curled into a ball, passed out, all their tattered and filthy belongings next to them. They’ve become a blight on society that no one seems to know how to handle. How I wish pulling out my pom-poms from long ago could make a difference in their tragic lives, but I know that is naive thinking. But remembering the old woman’s sweet smile gives me pause.

While the homeless problem is too big for one person to conquer, maybe the one thing I can always do is recognize them as human beings, for we all have intrinsic value. By acknowledging their presence with eye contact, a smile, perhaps a kind word or just a quiet blessing as I pass, I’m cheering their humanity. We’re all God’s children and no matter our condition, we all deserve to be recognized.

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