At just 15 years old, Sarah Cronk started the nation’s first ever inclusive cheerleading team at her high school in Bettendorf, Iowa. The Spartan Sparkles squad of Pleasant Valley High School includes students with disabilities and cheers alongside the varsity squad during football and basketball games.
In 2009—one year after organizing the Spartan Sparkles—Sarah created The Sparkle Effect, an organization that provides students with resources to build and lead their own inclusive cheerleading or dance team. In its four years of existence, The Sparkle Effect has generated more than 110 squads in middle schools, high schools and colleges across the country.
Since founding the organization, Sarah has earned numerous awards and honors for her efforts to create opportunities for students with disabilities. Most recently, she was awarded the Peace First Prize, which honors young people with the courage to create lasting change. She was also selected for the World of Children Award, which honors real-life heroes working to improve the lives of children.
We talked to Sarah to get the scoop on how you can create your own Sparkle Effect team in your community. So if you have a passion to make cheerleading or dance an accessible sport to everyone, follow Sarah’s 11 simple steps to make it happen!
1. Establish your core group of cheerleaders.
This group will serve as the foundation of your program. Choose students who are hard-working, reliable and comfortable working with those with disabilities. Select one or two captains to run practices and communicate with team members, parents and school administration.
2. Find an adult to support and advise you.
Your cheer coach may seem like the obvious choice, but you can also reach out to parents, teachers and school counselors. Your advisor must be committed to the program and agree to attend all meetings and supervise the team at practices and games.
3. Discuss the framework of your squad.
Your core group of cheerleaders and adult advisor should meet to decide on the size of the squad, the age-range for your participants, the location and times of practices, and at which games your team will cheer. It’s best to start with a small inclusive team. Then you can expand your program as it becomes successful.
4. Get the green light from your school administration.
Meet with your school administrators—don’t forget the athletic director—and clearly communicate the purpose and goals of your program. Keep an open mind and be willing to compromise.
5. Create promotional materials.
Design flyers and brochures describing your new team. Include the date and time of your first informational meeting so potential participants can learn more about the team before deciding to join.
6. Spread the word!
Let everyone know about your awesome new team! Post flyers at schools and local businesses, ask your school to send out a special email, and contact local papers and TV stations. Remember that word-of-mouth promotion is simple but goes a long way. You never know who might be aware of someone that would make a great participant, so spread the word!
7. Choose your uniforms.
Uniforms are what identify you as a cheerleader, but buying new ones can be expensive. Figure out what your team will wear and how it will be funded. The Sparkle Effect has partnered with Varsity to provide uniform grants and has already outfitted more than 65% of its new teams, so check out their grant application online.
8. Hold an informational meeting.
Here you should explain the details of your program to interested participants and their parents. Type everything out so they can review the information and make the decision that’s best for them. Your squad won’t be the right fit for everyone, so don’t worry if not everyone signs up. Your job is to provide as much information as possible and answer any questions.
9. Practice time!
Now that your school is on board and you have your team set, it’s time to hit the practice mat. Start practicing approximately six weeks before your first game or performance. Sarah suggests scheduling practice twice a week for about an hour. Remember, safety comes first! Be attentive and add new skills slowly and carefully. Always use mats and proper spotting on stunts and tumbling. You might be eager to teach new skills, but keep in mind that your friendship is what makes this experience so valuable. Stay positive, be patient and have FUN!
10. Flaunt it!
You’ve put a lot of work into this, and it’s finally your time to SPARKLE! Before each game, allow adequate time for your squad to warm up and become familiar with the crowd and environment. Game day is full of distractions, so keep the focus on your teammates and ensuring their safety. It’s a great idea to have your peer coaches buddy up with participants.
11. Share your success!
Your vision and hard work has turned into a reality, and now that your program is a success, everyone will want to know more about it. Ask your school to include a team picture in the sports program and yearbook. Continue to talk to local papers and TV stations about your success, and contact The Sparkle Effect to be added to their roster and receive ongoing support. Creating a Sparkle Effect squad is an incredible and rewarding experience for everyone involved, so share your story with the other schools in your area so they can do the same!