2018 HERO AWARD – YOUTH
2013 YOUTH AWARD HONOREE
Founder, The Sparkle Effect
In the fall of 2009, as Sarah Cronk and her new cheer team linked arms, walked onto the field, and claimed their place under the Friday night lights at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa, she couldn’t help but think that what was about to happen might very well change high school game night forever. She was right. What started as the nation’s first cheer team including students both with and without disabilities has since galvanized a nationwide social inclusion revolution.
Over five million students with disabilities attend public schools in the United States; yet, most school sports and activities are not designed to accommodate these students. Not surprisingly then, students with disabilities are often sidelined, excluded from extra-curricular activities and the critical social opportunities they provide. For Sarah, this issue is personal. Her older brother Charlie was born with a disability that causes him to struggle socially. When an invitation to join the swim team dramatically improved Charlie’s high school experience, Sarah realized the power and responsibility that young people have to shape one another’s experiences.
10 years ago, when she was only 15 years old, Sarah founded The Sparkle Effect, to generate and tangibly support school-based cheerleading and dance teams that include students with disabilities. Sarah believes that students with and without disabilities share the same need for a genuine team—one that involves a long-term commitment, a drive to skill-build through sustained effort and a willingness to work collaboratively with teammates over a period of time. Equipped with this understanding, The Sparkle Effect has designed an inclusive, intensive, and immersive experience for all student participants. Official Sparkle Effect teams receive specialized training, grants for uniforms, and ongoing mentoring throughout their lifespan. Students come to the team as equals, play to one another’s strengths, and practice and perform throughout a school’s fall and winter sports seasons.
Parents of students with disabilities have reported that their student’s participation on a Sparkle Effect team results in better school attendance and higher grades. Participants with disabilities are also more likely to eventually join additional extracurricular clubs, like theater, newspaper, choir, and band. Sarah’s teams help people to understand that inclusion is less an activity and more a way of thinking. By giving students opportunities to break down social barriers, inclusive teams create harmony among classmates and foster a culture that celebrates all abilities.
Since she was originally honored by World of Children in 2013, The Sparkle Effect has more than doubled its impact, generating over 200 teams in 30 states and directly involving more than 10,000 students.