At Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa, the cheerleading squad cheers for more than just school spirit. When the Spartan Sparkles take the field, they are crusaders of confidence, acceptance and joy. As the inaugural squad of The Sparkle Effect movement, which encourages teens nationwide to include students with disabilities in school-based cheerleading and dance programs, the Spartan Sparkles are dedicated to embracing diversity and ensuring all students are accepted and respected.
As The Sparkle Effect continues to grow and change the lives of participating students – both with disabilities and without – its founder Sarah Cronk serves as a model for other young people looking to get involved in the community. Her advice for young adults striving to make a difference? “Don’t believe that just because you’re young, you can’t do it. That is absolutely not the case. Pick what’s important to you, and go for it.”
The Sparkle Effect was born out of the inspiration of Sarah Cronk. Sarah had been familiar with disability her whole life having grown up with an older brother on the autism spectrum. But it wasn’t until Sarah and her brother were both in school at Pleasant Valley High that she began to realize he was not always included in school activities nor selected for sports teams. “The social transition was rough for him,” says Sarah. “He was trying to get involved in clubs and he ended up being rejected.”
One day, when a popular student invited her brother to sit with him at lunch – and later recruited him for the school’s swim team – he finally began to feel accepted alongside his peers. It was this small act of kindness that ended up changing her brother’s life. “It was the first time I witnessed the tremendous impact inclusion could have on a person.”
With the knowledge that inclusion can be a powerful tool to inspire confidence and self-esteem, Sarah began looking for other ways to spread this important message throughout her high school. She ultimately turned to the members of her cheer squad. Only 15 years old at the time, Sarah encouraged the squad to welcome members of all abilities and began advocating for all students in her high school to join. The team roster quickly transformed to include students with disabilities; in 2008, Pleasant Valley High School’s “Spartan Sparkles” became the first inclusive cheer squad in the country.
“It was a bumpy transition at first,” says Sarah. “The team was much more about being comfortable with each other. Our spirit was focused on getting to know one another and once we broke that barrier, we knew we were doing something important.”
As the Spartan Sparkles continued practicing and cheering at local sporting events, the squad learned the value of acceptance and what it feels like to be part of a team. And recognition among Pleasant Valley High School students soon followed. “The squad grew and we had to start turning interested girls away. That’s when I began thinking, ‘Why isn’t every school doing this?’”
Sarah decided to take matters into her own hands by drafting a letter to about 100 squads across the nation. “I wanted everyone to know about the profound impact the Sparkles had on my school and how having an inclusive squad could change all the members for the better.” But when her letter failed to garner a single response, Sarah picked up the phone and began contacting national media herself in the hopes of raising some awareness about the Spartan Sparkles.
Sarah’s efforts proved successful and the Sparkles scored an interview with People Magazine in 2009. “Once our article in People was published, there was just a snowball effect of interest in what we were doing. That’s when we decided to create The Sparkle Effect – we wanted to provide squads across the nation with the support to start their own inclusive teams.”
And that’s exactly what The Sparkle Effect does. It’s a one-stop-shop for everything a group may need to start their own inclusive cheerleading squad, including an on-line Quick-Start kit, grants for uniforms, free on-site training and ongoing advice and support. Interested squads are encouraged to visit the site to learn how to get started and apply for The Sparkle Effect’s uniform grant program. New squads also receive free on-site training by The Sparkle Effect staff members, which provides groups with a more personal experience and the confidence to get started.
To date, The Sparkle Effect has helped create 41 squads in 20 states across the country, impacting the lives of hundreds of students nationwide. For Sarah, this means more people now experience and understand the power of inclusion. “My greatest accomplishment with The Sparkle Effect is being able to train squads across the country and really witness firsthand that what had happened to me at my school [with the Spartan Sparkles] is happening to hundreds of kids across the country. I get to be there as people embrace all abilities and differences.”
For her amazing work encouraging a culture of acceptance in communities nationwide, Sarah was honored with the $100,000 grand prize at the 2011 Do Something awards ceremony in August. This new boost in funding will help the organization expand their grant program, hire more on-site trainers and develop regional cheer camps. “Our goal within the next few years is to have 100 squads that include 2,000 students across the country, but my ultimate dream is for inclusion to be synonymous with cheerleading. We want inclusion to be the norm instead of something we only hear about once in a while.”
Citing The Sparkle Effect’s motto “When everyone cheers, everyone wins,” Sarah believes that learning to embrace all abilities is a valuable skill for today’s youth. “Working with kids with disabilities is one of the best ways to promote inclusion – and I’ve found most of the time kids without disabilities get more out of the program than kids with disabilities since it teaches the value of acceptance.”