GARY | With a pledge Monday to "challenge the community to support this cause," coach Tony Branch of ABC's "Secret Millionaire" fame donated seed money for the Lew Wallace High School cheerleaders' fundraising campaign to buy new uniforms and shoes.
And the founder of the Baylor Youth Foundation basketball league and motivational speaker promised to be back with a "much larger check."
"We got to stop looking for outside people to solve our problems. We can stand on our own," said Branch, who was recognized for his work with Northwest Indiana youth during a March 20 airing of the ABC reality show by millionaire James Malinchak.
During his visit to Lew Wallace, the 50-year-old Merrillville resident talked to the 30 young women from Lew Wallace High and Emerson School for Visual and Performing Arts, who are on the Lew Wallace cheerleading squads.
"Being rich means you can buy something. Wealth is something you can pass on. It can be monetary, education or a good spirit," Branch told the students and their parents during the fundraising campaign kickoff meeting.
"I want to see you go places," he said after the cheerleaders told him about their plans to go to college and become doctors, engineers, chefs, lawyers and journalists. "What drives me is giving you young ladies a chance."
Branch was born and raised in New York City's Bronx borough. He gained fame and fortune with his basketball abilities as a goodwill player with the U.S. armed services and later with a French professional team in Le Havre, France.
After retiring from the military 12 years ago, Branch settled in Gary and went to work for U.S. Steel. Since then, he has been giving back to the community, mentoring youth through sports and donating money and time to youth programs.
Coached by Carol Witvoet, the Lew Wallace cheerleaders are the largest squad to participate in the sport in a number of years.
There aren't enough uniforms for all 30, and the uniforms that are available aren't in good shape, she said.
"No one was cut who wanted to participate. The girls have to maintain a 2.0 grade point average, attend practices and games three times a week after school, and not get in trouble in school or in the community," said Witvoet, who is a friend of Branch and asked him to be part of the fundraising effort.
"These kids choose to make a better life by attending school, maintaining good grades and focusing on the ultimate goal -- a college education and a chance to make something of themselves."