We were so impressed by Sarah Cronk when we visited with her for an article in our November/December issue that we wanted to continue our interview with her here! Sarah started The Sparkle Effect in 2008 to give special needs students at her Iowa high school the chance to shine as cheerleaders. The squad was such a success that Sarah was inspired to help other schools start Sparkle cheer teams. She created a website, thesparkleeffect.org, as a “one-stop shop” with all the info on to get a cheer squad for special students going. Read on to find out more about this inspirational cheerleader.
You have received numerous awards, from being named a “Breakthrough Woman” by CNN to “Young Achiever of the Year” by The International Leadership Network. Is there one award that really stands out for you, one that means the most to you?
I am humbled by every award I have received. The Sparkle Effect is such a labor of love for me and it is gratifying to know that others recognize and appreciate what we are trying to accomplish. The Do Something Award, which I received in August of 2011, has certainly meant the most for The Sparkle Effect because it was accompanied by a $100,000 grant. That substantial funding allowed me to interface with over 10,000 high school cheerleaders and dancers across the country this past summer as The Sparkle Effect launched its first-ever nationwide tour of UCA, UDA, and NCA camps! It has also allowed The Sparkle Effect to expand the program to inclusive junior high and college teams and has allowed us to continue our uniform grant program and free on-site training.
What is the most rewarding part about working with students with special needs?
I formed The Sparkle Effect because I wanted to help students with disabilities find social connection. I didn’t fully understand that connection is a two-way street. Through my work, I have found levels of connection that I never expected. I thought that I would be teaching students with disabilities. I didn’t realize that they would be the ones teaching me. My friends with disabilities are the most open, loving, loyal and courageous people I have ever met.
Do you have one memory that stands out in your mind about a time when you were teaching your Sparkle team a routine?
I will never forget my experiences with one of the girls on our local Sparkles squad. Alison arrived at the first practice with a unique set of challenges. She felt uncomfortable with the texture of the practice mats and refused to stand on them. For several practices, she came dressed in a variety of different wigs. She spoke only if called by the name of the particular character (like Hannah Montana) she had dressed as that day. At first, I didn’t know how to handle the situation, so I looked to Alison’s mom for guidance. Her advice: just go with it. Following her mother’s lead, I decided to meet Alison where she was, even if that meant calling her Hannah Montana for a few weeks. For a while, I let go of teaching Alison cheerleading skills altogether. Instead, I worked on building trust.
During the first few football games, Alison attached herself to one of our peer coaches – literally. Alison clung tightly to her arm, and would not to let go even to clap or jump. Eventually, about four months into the program, we began to see a shift. Bit by bit, we saw the wigs and costumes less often. Alison began to respond to her own name, to interact with the other girls, and to participate right along with everyone else. She even began calling her teammates in the evenings and arranging for movie dates and shopping excursions on the weekends.
Now, it is always Alison, not Hannah Montana, who shows up to practice. It is Alison who cheers in front of hundreds of fans. It is Alison who struts out onto the basketball court independently, confident that her teammates are there if she needs them, but also confident that she can perform beautifully in front of the students.
How do you think your life has changed by building such an inspirational program?
My life has changed immeasurably through my work with The Sparkle Effect. Most importantly, I have had the good fortune to work with students across the country who inspire me every day with their commitment, their fortitude, and their heart.
Perhaps even more importantly, I have learned that while having compassion is important, acting on that compassion is critical. My work with the Sparkles has taught me countless life lessons. I especially admire the way the Sparkles girls live in the moment and take nothing for granted. They have helped me to appreciate the many gifts I have been given and have kept me from dwelling on relatively trivial difficulties in my life. They have given my life focus. They have made me feel like I belong.