Written by Hanna Lee
Sarah Cronk, 18 years old, grew up watching her older brother Charlie struggle socially in school with an autism spectrum disability. She witnessed her brother try out a variety of social groups without much success. It wasnât until a popular junior swim team captain invited Charlie to sit at his lunch table that things began to turn around for him. The junior encouraged Charlie to join the team. Charlieâs confidence grew overnight, and Cronk saw how a small gesture could do wonders. She wanted to have the same impact as Charlieâs friend and pass along the same opportunity to someone else.
In 2008, when she was just 15 years old, Cronk created and coached the nationâs first high-school based inclusive cheerleading squad at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa. âAt first I just had this idea based on my brother being on the swim team, and I wanted to do the same thing in my sport,â recalls Cronk. âMy parents, school and cheerleading coach were really supportive and helped guide me through the process to create a nonprofit for other cheerleaders to have an easy formula to make a squad work.â In 2009, Cronk established the nonprofit The Sparkle Effect to provide cheerleaders across the country with the tools to promote inclusion within their own squads.
The Sparkle Effect website offers a downloadable âQuick-Startâ Kit for squads across the country to implement a similar program. The kit includes a sample letter to administrators to introduce the program and get school leadership on board. In addition, it provides an 11-step model for starting a team, a sample promotional flyer, fundraising ideas, and tips for successful practices. Cronk notes that school budget cuts can make it hard for cheerleaders to start new programs, so The Sparkle Effect partnered with Varsity Spirit Inc. to provide uniform grants worth $1,000 to qualifying teams. To date, the Sparkle Effect has generated 50 inclusive teams across the United States and even one in South Africa!
Cronk believes acceptance and a sense of belonging is a universal desire, especially at the high school level. Â âWe found that cheering is easily adaptable to those with disabilities because we can make a routine as easy or hard as possible and cheering puts the idea of inclusion at the front and center,â says Cronk. âThese girls are side by side cheering as a team, and it spotlights what people with disabilities can do as opposed to what they canât do.â She points out that a lot of people donât really understand inclusion and The Sparkle Effect can start a conversation about the subject and demonstrate how weâre all more alike than different.
While many of Cronkâs experiences with The Sparkle Effect have been incredibly rewarding, itâs the moments when the parents of children with disabilities come up to her to let her know that sheâs made a difference that are especially inspiring. âIâve had people come up to me and say, âmy daughter talks more now since joining The Sparkle Effect then she has in the past 10 years,â itâs incredible.â Cronkâs brother Charlie inspired her to start The Sparkle Effect, so it was especially touching when he approached her earlier this year to tell her sheâs changed the way he views his own disability: âMy brotherâs disability used to be kind of this big secret for him, but he said to me âyou took my story and turned it into this amazing thing and now Iâm proud to be who I am,ââ recalls Cronk.
She advises any young person who wants to start something similar to The Sparkle Effect to âbelieve anything is possible, donât be afraid to ask for help and always start from a position of yes.â Currently, Cronk is a freshman at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington where she is majoring in English. Her ultimate goal is for The Sparkle Effect to become as synonymous with cheerleading as pom-poms. She hopes every future squad is inclusive, but for now sheâs taking it one step at a time and remembering whatâs most important: âA lot of people think The Sparkle Effect is about cheerleaders helping kids with disabilities but in reality these kids are helping us,â declares Cronk. âThe Sparkle Effect wouldnât be possible without their passion and courage. When everyone cheers, everyone wins.â
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