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Through life's trials, North Hall siblings Jake and Avery Klemm share unbreakable bond
Jake, a football player for the Trojans, is supported fully by his sister, Avery, who has Down syndrome but flourishes as a cheerleader
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North Hall football player, Jake Klemm, with his sister, Avery, a cheerleader, after a recent game at The Brickyard in Gainesville.

Those new to the Brickyard most Friday nights wouldn’t realize that Jake and Avery Klemm are actually brother and sister.

After each football game, Jake at 6-feet-tall with long, flowing blonde locks and dressed from shoulder to toe in Trojans’ football gear, weaves through a large congregation of fans, coaches and teammates. He searches for a delicate, red-haired and freckle-faced teenager on the cheerleading squad.

He finally locates his adoring sister, Avery, a smiling 4-foot-10 sophomore who navigates through life with Down syndrome. He hoists her up for a hug before guiding her back toward the team’s postgame debriefing. Enter their mother, Pam Klemm, whose insistence on snapping a photo of the pair has been a weekly ritual.

Those ‘proud mom’ moments for Pam include overhearing the many positive conversations about her two children on the field, or seeing the reactions on their faces once they finally connect the dots.

Appearances may differ, but their love of Friday nights are very much the same for the Klemms — even Pam’s 86-year-old mother, Maria Oakes, a North Hall football season-ticket holder.

It is the norm for this tight-knit family: Avery pumps up the crowds from the sidelines, while big brother Jake battles on the field with his Trojans teammates on game nights.

“I just think it’s neat, personally. Everybody doesn’t have that opportunity,” North Hall coach David Bishop said. Bishop can certainly relate, as his daughter previously cheered for North Hall for four years. 

“I went through it with my daughter. She’d look for me, and I’d look for her. Now you have a brother-sister dynamic — just to see that they care enough about each other, to look for each other and know that Jake’s out there competing while Avery’s supporting him.”

Jake, 17, has played varsity for Bishop the last three seasons, while 16-year-old Avery is in her second year cheering for both the varsity and junior varsity squads at North Hall. She is the first student with Down syndrome to do so at the high school, said her coach and mother. But people can easily forget that component once they see this bubbly, outgoing personality in uniform, reciting the many choreographed cheers — also mixing in her trademark split — beside her fellow squad members on game nights. 

Just like Jake, Avery’s doing her part in enhancing the game experience for the fans.

“I think it’s amazing. She’s a cheerleader, I’m a football player ...Not to boast, but we’re pretty popular,” laughed Jake, a senior and two-way lineman for the Trojans. “Everyone knows us. ...They love it, I love it and Avery loves it. It’s great.”

As for those sweaty hugs from her older brother, Avery hinted that they may not always be welcomed. 

“I tell him to take a shower and get clean,” she said with a bashful grin. “He (even) puts his football helmet on my head sometimes. “It’s all sweaty and big.”

But the enjoyment in seeing her brother compete on the field is always there. Most regulars at the Brickyard can’t spot one Klemm without the other after the game. It’s always been that way, according to their mother. 

EARLY START

For the better part of her children’s lives, Pam has made sure the three of them had the most typical family environment as possible. A single working mother for 10 years, Pam said it really was just the three of them early on while they resided in Dacula. Jake and Avery developed a strong bond as a result.  

Besides living with Avery’s disability, Jake’s responsibilities grew dramatically at a young age. During Jake’s fifth-grade year, the Klemms were struck hard with Pam’s Stage 3 Melanoma skin cancer diagnosis. In-and-out of hospitals for an entire year, Pam — often too drained to take on a number of daily tasks — turned to Jake to make sure Avery was entertained and put to bed in the evenings.

A stockpiled pantry of Maruchan ramen was the cuisine of the Klemm household while Pam was undergoing experimental treatments at Emory. Jake learned to pair that dish with hard-boiled eggs, cooking that for Avery and himself while their mother rested.

Ms. Klemm is proudly five years cancer free. Jake meanwhile, can jest that his so-called love of ramen may be a little dampened today.

“I had to step up and take care of (Avery), and that definitely changed me,” he added.

Jake still recalls those days he would ‘rough house’ with his younger sister — like most little boys would — either around the house or in the yard. At times, the play would get a little too rough, their mom said.

“She loved it ...until I got really big and she couldn’t win anymore,” Jake laughed. “It made her a tougher kid, which I think is a good thing.”

At times, Pam had to intervene, yet a teary-eyed Avery would always side with her older brother. In his own way Jake returned the favor, coming to Avery’s defense in many other aspects of life. He always saw her as that typical little sister, he said, and wanted others to see that too.

“He holds her to a very high standard, and can be very tough on her at times, but in a loving way,” Pam said of her son. “He knows she can do a lot of things. And sometimes the community would want to treat her with kid gloves. He wants them to treat her like everybody else. ...He is fiercely loyal to his sister.”

Football played a part in fortifying that bond.

A COMMON OUTLET

As much as Jake enjoyed playing with his sister, there was a need for Pam to find the right avenue for her ‘rough and tumbly’ son. 

“He did not know his own strength, and I was that mom that had the other mom’s calling me and saying, ‘um, Jake pushed my son,’ and yet here he is, just a sweet kid with this big heart. It just didn’t add up,” she said. 

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North Hall's Jake Klemm watches a play on the field at White County High School on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

Pam enrolled Jake in a youth football league his fourth-grade year. The suitable match for her son’s size and strength became an instant hit. Not far into Jake’s first season, Avery found her niche too — conveniently in Pam’s train of sight. A second-grader at the time, she gravitated toward the small batch of cheerleaders during the pee-wee games. 

And by the end of the season, Avery knew every cheer by heart.

“I had mom’s coming up to me saying ‘why don’t you sign her up for cheer?’ Pam said. “I thought, I dunno how that works, you know, with a special needs kid … cheering with the typical kids. How is that gonna work?”

The continued encouragement from the parents eventually gave Pam the peace of mind to sign Avery up for a local program. To her delight, Avery fell in love with it.

Avery even took part in “Sparkle,” a Gwinnett program for children with special needs.

“For him to be playing football and for her to be cheering just kind of worked,” Pam said.

Excluding a back procedure in her eighth-grade year, Avery has never missed a season of cheerleading. In that time frame, both siblings experienced the benefit of camaraderie in sport as well. 

“We’ve gotten much closer, from me being a football player and her being a cheerleader,” Jake said. “Both of those sports have helped us make a lot of friends.”

For Pam, it was a Godsend.

“I’ve always said, when you’re a single mom and you’re raising children, it takes a village,” she said. “Those rec leagues, that was my village. That was who helped me, you know, just raise my kids.” 

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Avery Klemm cheers on North Hall football team at White County High School on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

It carried over into high school at North Hall after the Klemms moved to Gainesville in June 2016, the summer before Avery’s eighth-grade year. Since the family moved after registration had already passed, chances were slim for Avery to join the cheer squad her first year at North Hall.

Pam approached Sally Smith, the cheer coach at North Hall, to see if there was any way to at least get her daughter somewhat involved. Avery’s extensive background at least merited some participation, her mom felt.

Smith’s conversation with principal Jamey Moore and athletic director Billy Wells the following day was a positive one. The next thing they knew, Avery was with the team in the fall on a trial basis. From there it was a team effort for Pam, coach Smith and the family’s doctor in making sure Avery was on the path toward success — accommodating to her physical limitations while keeping the expectations and goals the same as her teammates.

“She’s brought a little extra sunshine to the team,” said Smith, in her ninth year as cheer coach for North Hall. “She wants to have those same goals and accomplishments. We have 75 to 100 cheers, and she knows all of them. She’s worked hard to get there.” 

The first season was one of nerves and excitement for Avery, who until then had never cheered in front of large crowds. Those feelings of angst are long gone as she now cheers full-time for both squads.

“This is what I want for her, to be able to experience what all these other cheerleaders had, growing up cheering on Saturday afternoons for the rec leagues with their cute little ponytails,” her mom said. “This is what they all ultimately want, right?” 

ALL PART OF THE FAMILY

There was plenty of uncertainty in Pam shortly before releasing both kids through the doors of North Hall High nearly two years ago. But since their arrival, the reception has been overwhelming for the Klemms — especially for Avery — within the Trojan community.

According to her brother and mother, Avery is a social butterfly at North Hall. Roaming the hallways, she’s on a first-name basis with the majority of the students, teachers and peers in her Peer Facilitation class. Coach Bishop said their daily encounters outside the classroom are ones filled with smiles.

“A little bit in my junior year, I was a little worried to see how she would fit in,” Jake said. “But not even the first week of school began her freshman year, everyone knew her. She’s just so outgoing. Everyone loves her.”

On the cheer squad, Avery has gained mentors on top of lasting friendships. North Hall cheer captain Macie Lee Reeves identifies Avery as another sister, a sweet spirit that brings positivity into her life every day. Even on their worst days, fellow cheerleader Ellie Miller said, Avery keeps them smiling.

Above all, it gave Avery the opportunity to do what she loves beside her brother.

“Being a special needs parent, you want your child to do something for the cause. You just want to better their cause,” Pam said. “(North Hall) just set a great example of what inclusion looks like.”

It is just a tad-bit harder now for Jake to track Avery down on Friday nights as she makes her rounds greeting friends. 

“When we played Jackson County, she would not go anywhere near us,” laughed Jake. “I had to pick her up and drag her back.” 

He is reminded each day that his little sister will be in good company after he graduates. Still, the thought of Jake and her good friend Macie Lee not being around next year makes Avery emotional.

Her older brother has full confidence she can adapt. After all, she’s tough, he says.

Instead of dreading the inevitable conclusion of Jake’s senior season, Pam chooses to cherish every second. Those hours and weeks accumulated on the rec fields have prepared her for these precious moments, seeing both her children — finally together — at the The Brickyard.

It’s everything for her.

“This is really what it’s all been for, is these moments now, where they both get to be in their glory under the Friday night lights, high school football. ...This is what it’s all about,” Pam said.

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