Access to school sports and after-school activities can dramatically improve the life of a child with a disability. They can build their self-confidence, make new friends, discover their passions and be celebrated for what they bring to a team.
2013 Youth Honoree Sarah Cronk of The Sparkle Effect has launched more than 100 inclusive cheerleading teams in middle schools, high schools and colleges in the United States. Sparkle Effect teams bring children of all abilities together and create a culture of acceptance in and out of the classroom.
Meet Tyler, a Sparkle Effect cheerleader at Sterling High School in Illinois, USA. Because of The Sparkle Effect, Tyler has become a leader on his team and discovered a passion for music and dance.
When it comes to cheering, Tyler is a natural. Anyone who has seen him cheer agrees.
“It is amazing to see someone be so passionate about something, like Tyler is for cheer,” said Kylie, a fellow teammate. “He comes to practices and games ready to do his thing.”
Whenever there is a touchdown at football games, he proudly runs with a flag from one end of the crowd to the other.
“Tyler could easily be known as the ‘glue’ that holds the squad together,” Kylie said. “He is always looking out for others and lending a helping hand to those who need it.”
Having a close-knit squad is essential for a cheer team; you don’t want to do complicated lifts or flips with anyone you don’t trust. Tyler spots other teammates to make sure they are safe, counting as they come down from the lift and holding on to them so they know they are safe.
“Anyone would trust going in the air when they know Tyler is underneath them,” Kylie said. “Tyler is so kind and considerate. If girls at practice trip and fall, he is the first one to run up to them to make sure that they are okay.”
For Tyler, cheering isn’t limited to after-school practice or games. He likes to make up his own cheers and dances at home to some of his favorite songs. Then during practice, he helps his team put routines together; he often has suggestions for which songs to use at the next performance and ideas for choreography.
It’s hard to imagine, but before joining The Sparkle Effect, outgoing, confident Tyler was much more shy and unsure about himself.
Tyler isn’t alone. Over five million students with special needs attend public school in the United States; yet most school sports and activities outside of the classroom are not designed to accommodate them. This dramatically limits their opportunities to socialize with peers or discover a special talent. Without a network of support, school can quickly become isolating and lonely.
That’s why 2013 Youth Honoree Sarah Cronk started The Sparkle Effect. She wanted to find a way to break down the barriers between students of different abilities.
“The result: students with disabilities experience true acceptance and they, alongside their typically-developing peers, become passionate leaders that inspire entire communities to embrace inclusion,” Sarah said.
But that wasn’t the only outcome. The Sparkle Effect has given students with and without disabilities an invaluable opportunity.
“I started the Sparkles and The Sparkle Effect because I wanted to help students with disabilities find social connection,” Sarah said. “I didn’t fully understand that connection is a two-way street. Our Sparkle Effect participants likewise report that they have found levels of connection they never expected. Typically-developing participants often remark that they thought they would be teaching students with disabilities; they didn’t realize that the students with disabilities would be the ones teaching them.”
Students participating on inclusive teams are breaking down social barriers, creating harmony among classmates, replacing insecurity with confidence and joy, and demonstrating that when we open our minds and our hearts to people of all abilities, everyone benefits.
“Tyler has taught me many, many things about life,” Kylie said, “but one of the biggest is to never underestimate people with special needs because they are capable of so much and can take on challenges and succeed with greatness.”