Sarah Cronk watched her older brother Charlie struggle to fit in during high school because of his disabilities. He was depressed and anxious, until the captain of the swim team invited him to join. Suddenly, the cool kids welcomed him, and he found a new group of friends. Inspired by Charlie, Sarah co-founded the first high school-based inclusive cheerleading squad in the nation. Today, The Sparkle Effect has generated 26 squads in 15 states and South Africa, encouraging a culture of acceptance in every community.
DoSomething.org asked Sarah how she got started with her project and what advice she has for other young people.
DoSomething.org: How did you feel when you first learned of the problem you are addressing?
Sarah Cronk: When I first began to see that most high school students with disabilities are excluded from high school sports (and the accompanying social benefits), I felt disheartened. My older brother Charlie was born with a disability that prevents him from fully understanding social cues, yet Charlie is very socially motivated and one of the kindest people I know. Transitioning into high school was rough for Charlie. Then, a popular upperclassman invited Charlie to join the swim team. The swimmers accepted Charlie into their social group and gave Charlie a place where he belonged. To me, this idea of belonging–of being an accepted part of a high school community–shouldn’t be considered a privilege available only to some students. Rather, we should consider it a basic human right.
DS: How do you feel about it now?
SC: I feel very optimistic! I have seen first-hand the willingness teens have to accept and include their peers with disabilities. I also feel that teens are perfectly positioned for this important task. Adults, no matter how well meaning, simply cannot provide the social acceptance that every teen wants. Only teens can lead the social inclusion movement.
DS: What person or experience sticks with you from when you first started your project?
SC: 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.
DS: Who or what is your inspiration to keep going?
SC: My biggest inspiration is hearing back from cheerleaders, students with disabilities, and their parents who have benefitted from their own Sparkle Effect squad. I also love to hear from teachers and administrators who say The Sparkle Effect has inspired a resurgence of school and community spirit. Cheerleaders across the country have reported that they love their work with The Sparkle Effect so much that the trajectory of their lives has changed. Some have decided to go into special education. One girl even went on to create another inclusive club within her school, which sponsors monthly inclusive social events, like pizza parties and movie nights.
My favorite stories are from parents. Parents of students on Sparkle Effect squads report that their children have improved physical fitness and motor skills, greater confidence, and higher self-esteem. Some parents have even reported that the benefits of inclusion on the field have resulted in better report cards in the classroom. One father told me that he heard his daughter say more in a 45-minute Sparkle Effect practice than he had heard her say in the past four years.
DS: Can you describe the moment you knew that you were actually making a difference?
SC: Our local Sparkles squad began practicing in the high school cafeteria in the summer of 2008. The Sparkles did a great job in the safe, sheltered environment of our school’s cafeteria. However, I worried about the student body’s reaction during the Sparkles’ debut at the first home football game. Our “front line” of seniors is known for being particularly rowdy, and I was concerned about how they would respond to our new group.
As it turned out, my fears were completely unfounded. As the Sparkles took the field with us, the entire student section—even the senior boys—stood up and began chanting, “Let’s Go Sparkles, let’s Go!” When we finished performing, the entire stadium full of spectators rose to their feet and began to cheer. At that moment, I realized that this unprecedented and unlikely squad was going to change my high school forever.
DS: What was the most difficult roadblock you faced when you tried to start your project? When you were growing it?
SC: While finding our first local Sparkles turned out to be relatively easy, the first few weeks of practice were bumpy, to say the least. One girl repeatedly threw tantrums. Another kept hitting, kicking, and scratching her teammates. Many of the girls lacked impulse control and all of the girls lacked focus. We decided to go back to basics. We focused a little less on cheering and stunting and a little more on games and exercises that would help us get to know one another. After a few weeks, the girls learned to trust us and one another. They actually began to skip into practice with bright eyes and huge smiles.
The Sparkle Effect came with a completely different set of obstacles. When I first created The Sparkle Effect, I had enthusiasm, passion, and a website that included all of the tools necessary for other teens across America to duplicate the success of our Sparkles’ program. What I didn’t have was money. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Without funds, I was forced to come up with creative ideas for getting the word out about The Sparkle Effect. I turned to national organizations focused on disabilities, high school sports, and volunteerism, and asked them to profile The Sparkle Effect on their websites cost-free. The support I received was both humbling and awe-inspiring. Within a few months, The Sparkle Effect was appearing on several national websites. Then, much to my surprise, in the fall of 2009, our local Sparkles squad captured the attention of the national media. After appearing in People Magazine and on Oprah, I received tons of e-mails. The national exposure invigorated and inspired hundreds of cheerleaders across the country.
DS: What’s been the biggest lesson through the process?
SC: I have learned that while having compassion is important, acting on that compassion is critical. I have also come to understand that social inclusion helps people learn to see the person and not the disability. I have thoroughly enjoyed turning on its head the stereotype of cheerleaders as self-involved elitists. Sparkle Effect teams instantly transform what was previously seen as the most exclusive group in high school into the most inclusive.
DS: What has surprised you the most about the journey that has taken you here today?
I started the Sparkles and 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 did not realize that they would be the ones teaching me.
The amazing, wildly enthusiastic support from student fans nationwide has been a surprise. When it comes to the social inclusion of students with disabilities, students are leading the charge and sending the message loud and clear to other teens and adults: Tt’s cool to care.
DS: What advice do you have for other young leaders who are having a tough time getting their ideas off of the ground?
SC: Adopt an unwavering belief that you can and will make a difference. If and when you get stuck, let go of the uncertainty about the big picture. Refuse to see roadblocks. Instead, see signposts. Understand that roadblocks are actually arrows pointing to a new (and usually better!) path to your destination.
Also, assume that people are good and helpful and well-meaning (people love positive reinforcement).
Finally, never be afraid to be totally excited about your work. The world needs more unbridled enthusiasm.
DS: If you could have done one thing differently based on what you know now, what would it be and why?
SC: I would have sought advice and assistance earlier than I did. I [knew that I would] only generate squads if people knew about them. I decided to mail 100 letters to high school cheer squads nationwide, telling them about The Sparkle Effect and urging them to start a squad. This work generated not a single squad.
Then, in a moment born more of desperation than inspiration, I contacted Jeff Webb, the President and CEO of Varsity, Inc. and the Universal Cheerleading Association, the two largest and most successful cheerleading companies in the world. Mr. Webb had started his extraordinarily successful company by himself out of his tiny apartment, so I thought that maybe he would be willing to offer advice. Not only did he offer advice, Mr. Webb has turned out to be one of my most ardent and effective supporters. His companies have featured The Sparkle Effect on their websites, in a video that aired on closed-circuit hotel television at the Walt Disney Resort during the National Cheerleading Championships, and at cheerleading camps across the country. Mr. Webb also agreed to partner with me to provide cheerleading uniforms to new Sparkle Effect squads throughout the country. His company, Varsity Spirit Fashions, matches Sparkle Effect grants dollar-for-dollar and adds a 20% discount to all uniform purchases. Through Mr. Webb’s unwavering support, The Sparkle Effect has reached virtually every high school cheerleader in America and outfitted seventeen squads nationwide. Now, whenever I need help, I ask for it!
DS: What’s next for your project?
SC: The Sparkle Effect will continue to generate and outfit squads coast to coast! The Sparkle Effect is enjoying tremendous momentum. We have generated twenty-seven squads, twenty-three of which were created in the past fourteen months alone!
In the highly competitive world of high school sports, teens are taught to perfect their skills, to conquer, to win. Sparkle Effect squads are not about perfection; they are about connection. In many towns across America, Friday night football and basketball games are the main event. Sparkle Effect teams nationwide are throwing a big, bright spotlight on the richness that results from inclusion. Fans are leaving sporting events entertained and inspired. I know that the magic of The Sparkle Effect can easily reach into every high school in the country. When it does, game night in America will never be the same.
Bonus Question: If you could have any celebrity film a PSA for you, who would it be and why?
SC: Jane Lynch! On the hit show Glee, Jane plays Sue Sylvester, a wonderfully wicked high-school cheerleading coach. Sue defied expectations when she allowed a sophomore girl with Down syndrome to join the Cheerios squad. It was soon revealed that Sue has a sister with Down syndrome. The close relationship between the sisters exposes Sue’s tenderness and humanity. I believe that Jane Lynch appeals to teens and adults alike and she would be the perfect celeb to promote The Sparkle Effect!