SHELBY – When Kensi and Travis Yoakum started their family, they'd always envisioned having a girl. Now, they have two sons and 52 girls.
The couple moved to Shelby a year and a half ago, and have already immersed themselves in the community by creating the Storm cheerleading program at the Shelby Y. Travis works as the Y's senior program director, while Kensi coaches the team.
The Storm cheer program is designed to encourage young girls to overcome fears, work together, and challenge themselves. While working as a team, girls will perform at local sports games and also participate in special events.
"I wanted to create something unique that gave girls an opportunity to show off confidence," Kensi said. "I also wanted a way to teach girls how to be kind, not just to others but to themselves."
Storm first started in the fall of 2018 with a 12-girl squad cheering on the Shelby Y football team. Then, Kensi introduced a program in January that incorporated dancing, tumbling and stunts. Now, more than 50 girls are split between two squads: the Lightening squad ages 4 to 7, and the Hurricane squad ages 8 to 12.
"It was just supposed to be one winter program," Travis said. "And then seeing the impact it had on those 12 girls, how much they were going to school and talking about how proud of it they were, we thought about it as a cheer feeder system. Although it's something that started as a passion, it's become something that it seems like the community wants."
A year and a half ago, the Yoakums were living in Indiana. According to Kensi, her husband was working a wastewater treatment job making amazing money. Still, it felt like something was missing.
"There was just something not right," Kensi said. "We prayed about it, and we realized the YMCA was a safe haven growing up. It was a real eye-opener."
Travis had 50 interviews all over the country looking for a YMCA job. The day the family came to Shelby for an interview was the day of the city's annual Polar Xpress and Moments of Christmas Magic celebration. They were hooked.
"There was something about this town that I loved," Kensi said. "As soon as the interview was over and we spent a couple more times in the city, it really felt like home."
After moving to Shelby, the Yoakums knew they wanted to start giving back. And they knew their calling was to work with children.
"I was nervous about starting the cheerleading program, worried what people were going to think," Kensi recalled. "As outsiders, were people going to trust us? But I knew this was my lane to teach girls kindness and confidence through my passion."
The name "Storm" represents something fierce that the team could remember and be proud of, Kensi said. Not to mention it's intimidating, as any sports team would want in a name. But more than that, it's a name that isn't affiliated with any local schools - Kensi specifically chose a neutral name because girls from six different school systems come to the Shelby Y to cheer.
The Storm team travels to area high schools across the county to show off their routines. They also volunteer at local nursing homes and food pantries. And this year, Kensi brought to Shelby a cheer camp organized by the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA).
Cheerleading squads that attend a UCA camp can nominate squad members to try out for the honor of being named a UCA All-American. When an athlete makes All American, they are invited to perform at special events across the country. Seven local girls from the Storm squad were picked as All Americans, making them part of the top 10 percent of cheerleaders in the nation.
A 14-year veteran of cheerleading, 25-year-old Kensi was once a UCA All-American herself, even traveling to London to cheer with UCA.
"Cheer was my life. I didn't make the greatest decisions growing up, and cheer was my outlet," Kensi said. "I was asked to cheer with UCA, and then God had different plans and I had Cohen."
Cohen is Travis and Kensi's 7-year-old son, who was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis. Kensi's full-time job is being a mother to Cohen and his 3-year-old brother, traveling to Columbus to or three times a week for doctor's visits and therapy with Cohen.
"I've had conversations with the girls where they ask, what if you didn't have Cohen, would you still be cheering? And I don't even think about that because my family is my life now," Kensi said.
Due to health problems a few years ago, the Yoakums are no longer able to have children. At first, they were devastated about not having a daughter - until they found their cheerleading family.
"The idea is to have them grow, as much as we feel it's growing us," Travis said. "Especially in small towns - we grew up in towns much smaller than Shelby, and we limited ourselves and our capabilities. But through Kensi's experience as a cheerleader and mine as an athlete, the things we learned through that was so valuable. There are so many things out there.
"After her first performance it was pretty emotional for me," he continued. "I could just see it; I think about if we were to have a little girl and before she was in sixth grade perform in front of hundreds of thousands of people, how impactful that could be for her confidence."
"I thought my life was ending," Kensi said. "Then when I came here and started this, I started to understand why it happened. I have 52 girls; each and every one of them has a phone, they text me and call me with problems, we do fun things together.
"My heart is full," she said. "It's where it needs to be. It's hard sometimes, but at the end of the day, this is where we need to be."