Sonoma Valley High senior’s project honors her father’s legacy

How to help

Kayla Winslow has set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for her project. To donate, go here.

As a cheerleader for more than half her lifetime, 17-year-old Kayla Winslow roots for the hometown team.

Her community is returning the favor, though, cheering her on and supporting her efforts to honor her late father, Roger “Deets” Winslow, and his wrestling legacy at Sonoma Valley High School.

Kayla is spearheading an ambitious plan to improve the wrestling room at the high school, where she is a senior. She also is establishing a scholarship in honor of Winslow, the longtime head wrestling coach who died at age 49 in a tragic boating accident in 2014.

The effort is part of Kayla’s senior project, a graduation requirement at the campus. It’s something deeply personal and compelling for the Glen Ellen teen, who easily could have chosen a less complex and time-consuming project.

So far, she’s raised nearly $6,000 and dedicated far more than the 20 hours required by the school. She is committed to the project, an idea proposed by her father just a few months before his death.

“My dad said he wanted to surprise the wrestlers with new equipment,” Kayla said. “It’s very close to what I’m doing.”

She’s had “incredible” support from friends and strangers alike, who overnight donated more than $1,000 when she opened an online fundraising account. In just a few months, she exceeded her $5,000 goal and earned about $1,000 more through a fundraiser hosted by her project mentors, brothers Nick and Dustin Pappas of CrossFit Sav-Up in Petaluma, who wrestled under her father’s tutelage.

“They are the best mentors I could have asked for,” Kayla said. “They’re as dedicated to this project as I am.”

She’s been touched by donations and messages of support from former wrestlers, parents and even opponents, including one offering “love and support from the Vacaville wrestling moms.”

Although Kayla loved the excitement of cheering for touchdowns and field goals as captain of the Dragons varsity cheerleading squad (and was voted to the homecoming court), her heart has long belonged to wrestling.

“It’s always been a part of my family and who we are,” she said.

Her grandfather, Roger Winslow, revitalized the wrestling program at Sonoma Valley High School; Deets Winslow was inducted into the Dragon Hall of Fame as a wrestler and coach; Kayla’s uncle Travis Winslow and older brother Jordan Winslow were champion wrestlers. Plus, her younger brother Tyler Winslow qualified for North Coast Section competition last year as a freshman and is among the Dragons’ top wrestlers this season.

Kayla serves as team manager and “stat girl,” something she’s helped with since middle school. She handles details for the team and keeps track of wrestlers’ moves on the mat during matches and tournaments, jotting down notes for head coach Nico Saldana, who also wrestled for her dad, and his three assistants to review.

The fast-paced action has a scoring system that’s rather “complicated,” Kayla said. Even so, it’s satisfying to help the team.

“Wrestling takes a lot of dedication, a lot of hard work, and these guys are good guys on and off the mat,” she said.

She can’t recall a time she hasn’t somehow been engaged in wrestling. An old family photo shows her dad coaching with his two youngest children fastened to baby carriers, Kayla at his chest and her little brother on their dad’s back.

How to help

Kayla Winslow has set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for her project. To donate, go here.

Planning a senior project recognizing her father’s dedication to the sport is especially meaningful for Kayla.

“It’s a really good way to honor my dad. He did so much for the program,” she said. “It was going to be a project we were going to do together. Sadly, he never had that opportunity. I’m honored to be able to do this for him.”

While Kayla always recognized her father’s contributions to Sonoma’s wrestling program and its athletes, she was overwhelmed by the supporters at his memorial service. Nearly 2,000 people filled a gym at the high school to pay tribute to the popular coach and mentor.

It was consoling for Kayla, her mom Heidi Winslow and their entire family, Kayla said.

“He really cared about his athletes, but he went out of his way. I don’t want to say he was more than a coach, but he definitely did a lot for them,” she said. “It was the kind of person he was.”

Her senior project includes plans for replacing weathered climbing ropes and a pegboard used for strength conditioning, installing new storage shelves and buying new sound equipment and a video camera.

And, at her grandfather’s urging, she also hopes to establish a wrestling Wall of Fame to honor generations of outstanding Dragons grapplers.

Saldana, 39, the team’s new head coach, is enthusiastic about all of Kayla’s proposals, especially since there have been few equipment upgrades since he wrestled for the school in the 1990s. The coaches and wrestlers appreciate Kayla’s efforts, whether managing the team, keeping stats or pursuing her senior project on their behalf.

“I actually tried to talk her down,” Saldana said, recognizing the scope of her project. “She is not trying to shy away from any of it.”

For Kayla, it’s all about her father and the wrestling program so important to her family.

“It’s a big (senior) project but I think it’s worth it,” she said. “I wanted to do something that mattered and make a difference.”

The effort is part of a juggling act for the busy senior, who is active in numerous school programs, takes honors and Advanced Placement classes, works weekends at a Glen Ellen café and volunteers with her rescue potbelly pig, Dallas, doing pet therapy work at Sonoma Developmental Center.

Kayla hopes to attend Chico State University and would love to eventually have a career working with children with developmental disabilities.

For now, with her final Dragons wrestling season beginning, thoughts are with her father, who headed the program for more than 20 years. The school hosts the Deets Winslow Memorial Tournament on Jan. 14.

Kayla initially had a difficult time even going near the wrestling room after her father’s death, but credits her family and friends with helping her through her grief.

“It’s never going to be easy. Every time I go into the wrestling room I can hear him yelling and coaching,” she said. “It’s definitely a place that reminds me of him.”

For more information, visit gofundme.com/2d72qr7v.

Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at sonomatowns@gmail.com.