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 wasn’t 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. Charlie’s confidence grew overnight, and Cronk saw how a small gesture could do wonders. She wanted to have the same impact as Charlie’s friend and pass along the same opportunity to someone else.

In 2008, when she was just 15 years old, Cronk created and coached the nation’s first high-school based inclusive cheerleading squad at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa. “At 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,” recalls Cronk. “My 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.” 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 “Quick-Start” 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.  “We 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,” says Cronk. “These girls are side by side cheering as a team, and it spotlights what people with disabilities can do as opposed to what they can’t do.” She points out that a lot of people don’t really understand inclusion and The Sparkle Effect can start a conversation about the subject and demonstrate how we’re all more alike than different.

While many of Cronk’s experiences with The Sparkle Effect have been incredibly rewarding, it’s the moments when the parents of children with disabilities come up to her to let her know that she’s made a difference that are especially inspiring. “I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘my daughter talks more now since joining The Sparkle Effect then she has in the past 10 years,’ it’s incredible.” Cronk’s brother Charlie inspired her to start The Sparkle Effect, so it was especially touching when he approached her earlier this year to tell her she’s changed the way he views his own disability: “My brother’s disability used to be kind of this big secret for him, but he said to me ‘you took my story and turned it into this amazing thing and now I’m proud to be who I am,’” recalls Cronk.

She advises any young person who wants to start something similar to The Sparkle Effect to “believe anything is possible, don’t be afraid to ask for help and always start from a position of yes.” 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 she’s taking it one step at a time and remembering what’s most important: “A lot of people think The Sparkle Effect is about cheerleaders helping kids with disabilities but in reality these kids are helping us,” declares Cronk. “The Sparkle Effect wouldn’t be possible without their passion and courage. When everyone cheers, everyone wins.”

 

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