It isn't just about the energy and excitement that the Chicago Spirit Brigade brings to any of the events the group cheers at.
It's about the fundraising. In fact, that is, arguably, its biggest and most important element.
At the end of every routine—which involves a fun, upbeat, elite-level routine with pyramids, dances and more—members carry Spirit Buckets in search of donations from the crowd. The brigade chooses one organization to raise funds for at every performance. The specific organizations are often groups that provide services to people with life-threatening challenges, such as organizations that raise money for cancer or HIV/AIDS research. These groups include Chicago House
, TPAN ( Test Positive Aware Network
) , BEHIV ( Better Existence with HIV
) and Howard Brown Health Center
, among others.
"One of the most important aspects of our fundraising is, when we raise money, 100 percent of the money goes to that organization," said Ric Martel, 40, who is a co-manager for the 2008 Spirit Brigade, which is now in its sixth year and has raised more than $20,000. The brigade raised about $3,000 for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation over Pride weekend.
Co-manager Richard Flack is the group's founder, having had experience with cheer organizations in different cities.
"The first couple of seasons, it was a relatively small group of people. But we've now grown to 25 members," Martel said. "We never intended, or perceived to be, a gay group. Yes, many of the members are openly-gay and of course we [ perform at ] high-profile [ gay ] events like the [ annual ] Chicago Gay Pride Parade, but we're not 100 percent gay."
The group is split 50-50, male-female. All of the men are openly gay and there is at least one lesbian. Members range in age from 21-50 and they cross the ethnicity spectrum.
"Anyone who demonstrates the level of commitment to put in the time to practice, that's the kind of person we're looking for. [ Membership ] has nothing to do with sexual orientation, age, race or sex," said Martel, who attended Maine East High School and the University of Illinois, and now lives in Rogers Park. He works in the housing division at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago
"We have an elite-level performance and we're not doing this just for our own personal glory or the applause from the crowd; it really is about our level of commitment to raising money and awareness for the groups that we are raising money for."
The team practices for four hours every Sunday at the Fitness Formula Club in East Lakeview.
The Spirit Brigade is on the sidelines for all Chicago Force home football games, played at North Park University.
The Spirit Brigade will hit about 12 events this summer, including Northalsted Market Days, the Chicago AIDS Walk, the Milwaukee AIDS Walk, the Chicago Marathon and more.Written by: Ross Forman
Article provided in partnership with Windy City Media Group