Sarah Cronk spreads cheer through Sparkle Effect

The Pioneer Sparkles have won a lot of fans and taught a lot of lessons at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus and beyond. Courtesy Patti Mitch

Quick: What comes to mind when you think of high school cheerleaders? The catfighting smack-talkers in "Bring It On?" Sue Sylvester's conniving Cheerios on "Glee?" That awful Pamela chick who kept trying to steal Michael J. Fox away from Boof in "Teen Wolf?"

It's time to start seeing cheerleaders differently.

When she was just 15 years old, Sarah Cronk helped her cheer team in Bettendorf, Iowa, defy age-old stereotypes by creating a squad that welcomed students with disabilities. The success of that team inspired her to found The Sparkle Effect, a nonprofit that boasts nearly 100 inclusive cheer teams at schools across the country.

"A lot of people overlook that cheerleading is a great opportunity for girls to become leaders," Cronk said. "At our high school, that cheerleading uniform meant a lot more than looking cute and doing a couple dance moves. It really meant being an ambassador for our school, and I hope The Sparkle Effect brings that attitude to the other communities that it's touched."

Cronk's older brother, Charlie, is disabled, and she watched him struggle to fit in when they were in high school. When the captain of the swim team invited Charlie to join his friends for lunch, it inspired others to include him more as well. Cronk saw what that act of kindness did for her brother, and she wanted to bring the same spirit of acceptance to others.

She asked her cheerleading coach if the Pleasant Valley High team might be able to create a side squad comprised of able-bodied and disabled students, the Spartan Sparkles, to cheer during certain games and events. Her teammates jumped on board and, using a one-to-one ratio of mentor to Sparkle, they practiced and performed, becoming the first inclusive cheerleading squad in the country.

"A lot of these kids were pretty invisible before this program," she said. "And a lot of that was just because people didn't know what to say or what to do -- as if communicating with them was worlds different from communicating with anybody else. So maybe there's a girl with disabilities in your science class and you see her sitting alone every day but you don't really know anything about her, you don't really know what you would say. Then you see her cheering in a game on Friday and she's doing a great job. You can say 'Hey, you did a great job at that game,' and she feels comfortable and it boosts her confidence and you've sort of bridged that gap.

"When you see the Sparkles cheer, it really shines such a big spotlight on what they can do as opposed to what they can't. It kind of makes people take a second look and realize we're really a lot more alike than we think we are."

Cronk says adults can try to help, but it's students who have the unique power to affect classmates simply by including them. And the Sparkles have not only demonstrated the power of peer acceptance, they've also helped adults see high school students differently.

"We've changed people's opinion of young people in general," she said. "When you see us perform together as a team with the Sparkles and see how the student body reacts and how supportive and excited they are, you realize that they're as much a part of the success as we are. People in the communities see how the students embrace these kids and how willing they are to include them outside of the games and practices. It really changes the culture of these high schools for everybody, not just the cheer teams."

Changing lives

The tremendous response the Spartan Sparkles received inspired Cronk to bring the idea to other schools and areas. At first she had trouble generating interest, adding just two teams the first year. Frustrated by budget cuts and limited resources, she learned the ins and outs of nonprofits and mastered the art of fundraising.

"Being able to financially support our teams was incredibly important," Cronk said. "We ended up creating a grant program, and once we could give our teams funds and new uniforms, we started increasing our numbers."

Word has gotten out about The Sparkle Effect, and Cronk has found herself on a whirlwind tour of media appearances and awards banquets. She's made multiple appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," has been profiled in magazines like People and Parade and has won countless awards, including the $100,000 grand prize at the 2011 Do Something Awards.

The acclaim is nice, and the money to continue funding more squads is definitely useful, but the real reward for Cronk is hearing about all the lives that have been changed.

"There was a girl on one team, we got an email from her dad," Cronk said. "She'd been on the team for a couple weeks, so he went to a practice to check it out. He had to excuse himself because he was getting emotional. In the 10 minutes that he'd been at that practice he heard his daughter say more than in the last 10 years at home. She was that comfortable and that happy.

"A lot of these kids are so shy, or have speech impediments, or don't feel they have anything that important to say until these teams give them a voice. When you're yelling for your school loud and proud, it just brings out all kinds of stuff."

Another student, one of the original Sparkles on Cronk's team, found not only her voice, but also her identity.

"Alison [Atkins] would come to practice every day in a different wig," Cronk said. "A Hannah Montana wig or a wig from a 'High School Musical' character. We had to call her by that character or she'd throw a fit. Her mom said to just go with it, that she was just trying to get comfortable. So we went with it, and then a couple weeks in she came in without a wig and said 'Today I'm just gonna be Alison.' She was just ready to be herself."

Cronk is now a student at Whitman College in Washington state, but she still serves as the president and creative director of The Sparkle Effect. With some help from two friends, Lauren Delzell and Allison Good, Cronk continues to oversee the creation of new Sparkle squads all over the country, including their first two collegiate programs, at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and Penn State. Delzell is working to bring The Sparkle Effect to her school, the University of Iowa.

"I really try to get the group involved in outside activities or community-service projects," said Patti Mitch, coach of the cheer and stunt team at UW-Platteville. "I have some special-needs nephews, so I'm very aware of the limitations of programs available for individuals with special needs. When [freshman Shelby Swanson, a former Pleasant Valley student] came to me with the idea of getting our team involved in The Sparkle Effect, I loved it."

The cheerleaders loved it, too, so much so that each of the Pioneer Sparkles has two mentors, instead of just one. Ranging in age from 11-21, the Pioneer Sparkles come from three neighboring states for practices and performances.

Success stories

Mitch says it's been incredible to see how the members of The Sparkle Team have grown from the experience.

"We have one young lady, Lakyn [Merfeld], she is 18 years old," Mitch said. "When she brought the flier for The Sparkle Effect home, her mother emailed me immediately. She said that this was better than winning the lottery; it was an answer to their prayers. Lakyn has always wanted to be a cheerleader and her high school basically told her they didn't want her. They wouldn't even make her an honorary cheerleader. And this young lady was just devastated.

"When this opportunity came, they were the first ones to sign up. And when Lakyn first put on the uniform she came out and said 'I am rocking this uniform.'"

She's been rocking the routines ever since, including the stunts.

"I was a little nervous at first," she said. "But I realized I got used to it."

Merfeld's favorite sport to cheer for is football; she likes to be close to the action, encouraging the players. As for the fans cheering her on, she loves the attention.

"I don't mind that at all," she said. "Yeah, totally!"

Especially since she gets to wear a snazzy blue-and-orange Pioneer Sparkles uniform.

When asked if she looks "pretty good" in it, her answer was honest.

"No, pretty great," she said.

Merfeld is just one of the Sparkles who lights up in front of a crowd. UW-Platteville's team includes several students who are wheelchair-bound, and Mitch says 13-year-old Devin Adams has really come out of his shell since he joined the team.

"Devin was born at 25 weeks," Mitch said. "Cognitively, as far as we know, he knows what's going on but he can't communicate it. His muscles are very rigid, so it's not like he can point to a picture board. He says about 25 words and when he responds, he responds accurately. His mom wasn't sure how much he was going to be able to participate or how much he'd really enjoy it, but he has a blast!

"He used to be very camera-shy; whenever his mom would pull out the camera he would drop his head and stuff. Now he sees me pull out the camera, his head goes up and he's got this huge smile on his face! He's a ladies' man -- he can get a hug out of any girl just by giving them a smile."

It's not just the mentors, the Sparkles and their families who benefit from the experience, though. Mitch said the impact is felt by everyone who watches them.

"One man, every time he sees me he says the same thing, 'Are the Sparkles here today?' And he always says something to the effect of 'I never thought someone in a wheelchair could do something like that.'

"People watching are starting to realize that just because someone may have physical or cognitive challenges, that doesn't mean they're limited in what they can do. We just need to be a little more creative in how we include them. These young men and women have probably heard 'no' so much in their lives. We are giving an opportunity for their parents and for everyone else to say 'Yes, you can. Join us.'"

Goals to grow

To mark their 90th team, The Sparkle Effect is introducing a scholarship that will be awarded to one of their squad members with disabilities or to one of their peer mentors.

Soon enough, Cronk will have to think of a way to celebrate the century mark.

She's working to get a team in every state, expand to other countries and get more colleges involved. Eventually, she hopes Sparkle squads will be the norm, not the exception.

"Ultimately we want inclusion to be as much a part of cheerleading, and high school sports in general, as it can be," she said. "I really hope eventually it doesn't call for attention -- it's just what everybody does and how everybody feels about inclusion and people with disabilities."