Fla. shooting prompts Fredonia cheerleader to help with letters

Submitted Photo Fredonia sophomore cheerleader Ally Zwerka-Gentle and some of the letters that were sent to students who experienced the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Special to the OBSERVER

Ally Zwerka-Gentle had just finished her last class of the day when she heard the news.

“I had a normal day of classes,” the Fredonia sophomore cheerleader from Spencerport, recalled as she looked back on the events of Feb. 14, which were anything but normal.

The news reports she read were sobering. A person armed with an assault weapon had gunned down students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. While the gunman shot at teachers and students, others hid fearing for their lives.

The carnage was high — 17 dead and 17 injured. The emotional toll was nearly as devastating. The innocence of youth had been shattered once again.

Zwerka-Gentle sat transfixed reading the news and looking at photos that were being posted. “I sat on Facebook and just read the articles and saw photos of kids looking so broken,” she recounted. “No one thinks that such an awful thing will happen to them, and then it does.”

One of the Facebook photos grabbed her attention. It was a share from a teacher from the Parkland school district with this caption: “If you have time, please consider writing a letter to a student that was affected by this tragedy.”

Zwerka-Gentle took a screenshot of the Facebook post and sent it out on the cheerleading team’s group chat. “After having several girls interested, I thought: ‘Why not everyone?'”

She reached out to friends on nearly every Fredonia Blue Devil team and asked them to consider writing a personal letter to the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. The feedback she received was all positive — and one by one, the letters from other student-athletes started arriving in her inbox.

“We are all behind you here,” a baseball player wrote, “Stay strong, no matter how hard it might be.” Wrote a hockey player. “With much love and heaviness in our hearts, we send you our blessings.” The letters were collected and mailed to the address that had been included in the Facebook post which had first caught Zwerka-Gentle’s attention.

“Such thoughtful and kind words were in those letters,” she said afterward. “I know that when they are received, opened, and read, some student will feel safe reading our words and a little bit about ourselves. And to me, that means more than any retweet, share, or comment online.”

This was not Zwerka-Gentle’s first turn at doing a kind act. In high school, she was known for volunteering for community service projects. Bringing the same humanitarian spirit with her to college, she has volunteered on Stroke Awareness Game organized by men’s hockey player Luke Rivera. “Ever since I attended school at Fredonia,” she said, “I knew I wanted to leave my mark here.”

While she wasn’t looking for any attention, it came to her nonetheless. Cheerleading Coach Katie Pucci-Schaefer and University President Virginia Horvath wrote notes of appreciation. So did Director of Athletics Jerry Fisk, who thanked the cheerleader for her “selfless service.”