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Flipping, tumbling toward success: 52 years and counting

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        A third-grade birthday boy stood on the mat, trembling with excitement and nervousness as six tumblers soared one by one over his Burger King crown. At 14 feet in the air, the Jesse White Tumbling Team defied gravity as 200 elementary school students screamed with delight and awe.
       Before the act, Tavais Fletcher picked up a game of basketball with fellow tumblers in his bright red and white sweatshirt that boasts his home city of Chicago. As a veteran tumbler at age 20, Fletcher has seen how the structure of training, tutoring and teamwork impacts children from across the city. The team serves as a juvenile delinquency prevention program to keep kids away from drinking and drugs.
            “We don’t let people get off the path. They drop below a C average, we help them during the summer and they get back on in the fall,” says Fletcher.
              In the 52 years that the Jesse White Tumbling Team has been performing, a C-average for student tumblers has indeed been mandatory to continue on the team. To keep student-athletes on the right path, report cards are brought in for review and those who do not make the grade must attend the tutoring program provided by the team.
             “Put something in between your ears. In life, aim high. The only time you look down is to tie your shoes,” Jesse White himself says. “Be in school, on time, everyday.”
               Education, celebrity, camaraderie and paid gigs also help keep tumblers on the path to success, organizers say. The team has traveled abroad, starred in 25 commercials, shared the stage with NFL, NBA and NHL stars and has more than 1,500 shows this year alone.
               Recently, White—who is also Illinois’ secretary of state—sent Fletcher to the mat, reminding students not to try at home, a round-off, flip, back summersault as cheers followed.
              The next tumbler, Marvin Johnson, snapped his suspenders and topped Fletcher’s act with a straight cartwheel, round-off, flip, back summersault full twist to an eruption of applause and shrieks that bounced off the walls of the small gym. Johnson ran through a pack of first-graders like a celebrity with hi-five’s, smiles and hugs.
              Johnson will be enrolling at the University of Illinois in the fall. His tumbling background will follow him through college with a major in sports kinesiology.
             “We love this, the kids. I mean, we do everything; churches, weddings, barbeques, any family gathering really,” says Johnson, speaking of where the group performs.
               As those in attendance watched Johnson interact with the kids smiles spread across the gym, so infectious that even the two suits at the door couldn’t resist.
             “You would think [White] would be the one in the suit,” said one teacher of the security standing at the door.
              As secretary of state, White travels in a black SUV with two bodyguards, who wear dashing black suits. But when traveling with any of his six tumbling teams, he travels in the group’s van and wears sweats that match the young tumblers as he also tumbles and tucks.
              A former member of the U.S. Army, White coaches all 285 tumblers on six teams with discipline and routine—or “tough love” as he calls it. Before the act, each tumbler has an assigned task, whether it is carrying out the mats or trampoline. The sooner the work is done, the sooner they can play. But the group’s mission is still serious business.
            “Not all go to college, but the bulk graduate from high school. We want to keep them out of SWU, Sad Walk University,” says White. “Keep them leafless, smokeless and pipe-less.”
              It is White’s belief that education keeps youths off the street and away from gangs. The tumbling team originally began as a positive alternative to housing projects such as Cabrini-Green and Henry Horner communities. The education program of the tumbling team helps give kids an alternative to gangs, drugs, alcohol and smoking.
              The tumbling program is split into three parts: the tumbling team, the training program and the scholars program. With over 13,000 student-athletes that have been through the tumbling team, there are 25 currently enrolled in college. The Jesse White Tumbling Team offers $1,000 to $5,000 in college scholarships.
              Though the program is designed to keep kids on the right track, some may stray. Both Fletcher and Johnson have seen how living without structure outside of school can affect the rest of their lives. And both remember with regret friends who lost their way and even those who were never on the team—lost to the street, to gangs, crime and prison.
             “If you choose that system, that’s your choice,” says Fletcher. We get on the right path here. We have guys who get out and send their kids here.”
By Casey Nunes

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