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Oglebay Institute Gives Helinski Shelter Girls Chance to Dance

Photo Provided A group of teen girls learn a dance at the Youth Services System Helinski Shelter in Wheeling.

WHEELING — It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday in mid-January at the Youth Services System Helinski Shelter for girls. Three teens in sweatpants and T-shirts stand in their sock feet in the middle of a small conference room-turned-dance studio, facing a 19-inch flatscreen monitor.

The long table and chairs have been pushed to the walls to make room for them to stretch, spiral and shimmy to Jay-Z during their hour-long session with Miss Cheryl from Oglebay Institute School of Dance.

It takes a while for Miss Cheryl to appear on the small screen, as she and the Helinski staff work to make the elusive Zoom connection — “Can you resend the link?” “It’s asking for a password.” “You shouldn’t need a password.” “Can you hear me now?” “Can you see me?”

Once the connection is made, the girls can see Miss Cheryl — a.k.a. Cheryl Pompeo, OI School of Dance director — but she can only see them from the waist down. It’s part of the shelter rules to protect the identity of the girls at the emergency residential facility run by YSS.

Healing through Movement

This is the second dance class in a year-long series of weekly classes Pompeo will lead for Youth Services System. The program is possible through a grant OI applied for and received from the Women’s Giving Circle, a group of local women who pooled their resources through the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley and use them to support projects and programs that benefit women and girls.

The initiative’s goal is to introduce dance to girls who otherwise might not have the opportunity, providing them with physical exercise and a creative outlet that can improve mental health and aid in healing from trauma.

“The arts rewire the brain, how they think about themselves. It teaches the brain a different path from left to right,” Pompeo said. “I really believe when anybody is in a situation that is highly stressful, music and movement get the endorphins going. … It contributes to the healing process.”

During the first class a week earlier, Margo Scott, longtime Helinski Shelter director, joined the girls in some of the stretches and attempted some of the dance steps herself.

“It was fun! We all laughed. It’s great exercise, and it’s good for them to be working together as a group. The class allows them to learn something new, which I always encourage. It introduces them to more opportunities,” Scott said.

Sock Hop

During the second dance class, the teens are taking a while to loosen up, most likely because someone is there taking pictures and asking them questions — questions they field with one-word replies, hands stuffed in pockets. But after 20 minutes of stretching and 10 more reviewing the steps they learned the week before, they are smiling and interacting more with Pompeo and each other. Pompeo, who doesn’t know the names of the girls, identifies them by their socks.

“Striped socks, you got it!” Miss Cheryl calls out.

“Pink socks, good job!”

“I love working with them,” Pompeo said.

Community Connection

Pompeo said Oglebay Institute has a responsibility to the community to “reach out and help wherever we can help.” Providing opportunities to all youth, no matter their circumstances, is an OI priority.

“Maybe the kids (at Helinski) were in dance but had to leave it because of a bad situation, or maybe they never had the chance. You never know, they could be the next Misty Copeland or Janet Jackson.”

Each dance class ends with a time of relaxation during which Pompeo teaches them breathing and mindfulness techniques they can use throughout their week whenever they encounter difficult emotions or situations.

“It puts you in a nice place. You can be wherever you want to be,” she said.

Favorite Day

Scott is grateful to the Women’s Giving Circle and to Oglebay Institute for caring about teens who often get overlooked in society.

“Cheryl is great with our kids, even though she couldn’t even see them! She is encouraging and patient. I really think the girls are enjoying it,” Scott said.

As more girls join the class, the plan is for staff to set up the Zoom on the larger TV in the shelter living room so everyone has room to stretch and move. Scott said she, the teens and the staff are looking forward to it.

“I have them all hyped up about it,” Scott said. “Fridays are everyone’s favorite day!”

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