Are you IN?
For The Sparkle Effect, being IN means being INvolved, INterested and INspired, and for this nonprofit being IN is for everyone. Founder and recent honoree in L’Oreal’s Women of Worth program Sarah Cronk was 15 years old when she decided to create a nonprofit that would allow students with disabilities to be included on school-based cheer and dance teams in schools throughout the country, giving them a chance to be included in on the game night fun with everyone else.
I recently got the chance to talk to Sarah about her biggest inspiration behind creating the organization, what challenges she faced in creating a nonprofit early on, and why it’s important to walk into a room and have everyone accept you for who you are.
Heather Taylor: How does The Sparkle Effect work to not only change the lives of students with (and without) disabilities but also to alter what game night means in America?
Sarah Cronk: Currently, over five million students with disabilities attend public schools in the United States, but most school sports and activities fail to accommodate these students. As a result, students with disabilities often find themselves sidelined—excluded from extracurricular programming and the critical social opportunities they provide. The Sparkle Effect directly addresses this issue by providing students nationwide with the tools they need to generate their own inclusive cheerleading and dance programs. We’ve made it possible for any student at the middle school, high school, or collegiate level in both public and private schools to successfully implement our program.
HT: What was your biggest inspiration for creating The Sparkle Effect?
SC: My brother, just one year older, has a disability. It wasn’t until we were both in high school that I began to realize that he wasn’t always included in school activities and sports. The social transition was rough for him. One day, a popular student invited my brother to sit with him at lunch and then recruited him for the school swim team. These small acts of kindness had a huge impact on my brother’s high school experience. They also had a huge impact on my perspective. It was the first time that I realized the tremendous power that teens possess to impact one another’s lives. I wanted to find a way to positively impact the students at my school who, like my brother, had been sidelined and excluded, and including students with disabilities on our cheerleading team seemed like the perfect place to start. In 2008, Pleasant Valley High School’s “Spartan Sparkles,” became the first inclusive cheerleading squad in the country. The squad is still going strong, and the girls are now enjoying their 5th football season!
HT: When you first created The Sparkle Effect, were you able to start coaching from your own school?
SC: Yes! In 2008 I created the first high school-based inclusive cheer team at my high school, Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa. Our team started with 5 girls with disabilities and 5 mentors, and has since doubled in size! The program has experienced a ton of success in our community – seeing the way that the Sparkles changed my community’s perceptions of students with disabilities made it even more important to me to start The Sparkle Effect.
HT: How many teams are currently in the organization?
SC: We’ve generated 81 teams from coast to coast at the middle school, high school, and now collegiate levels! These teams now include over 1,000 students nationwide! Sparkle Effect squads raise the spirit not just of schools, but of entire communities, big and small, across the country, potentially impacting a total community population of over 5 million! Over the next three years, we expect to generate at least 20 more inclusive squads so that millions more will enjoy the profound benefit of seeing students’ spirits soar and characters develop from this perspective-altering experience.
HT: Is The Sparkle Effect open to both boys and girls?
SC: Of course! We want this program to be available to as many children as possible, regardless of gender. While many of our teams are mostly girls, we do have a few with several highly-spirited boys.
HT: You were 15 years old when you started up the organization and now you’re 19 – what were some of your biggest challenges in starting up a nonprofit at that age?
SC: At 15, I had no idea how to run a nonprofit, and had a hard time adopting an unwavering belief that I could and would make a difference. I eventually learned that when I got stuck, I needed let go of the uncertainty about the big picture. I began to refuse to see roadblocks. Instead, I saw signposts pointing me to a new and better path.
I also feared that adults would not take me or my idea seriously. I quickly learned that that was the opposite of the truth. Every person whom I’ve asked for help has wowed me with their advice and generosity.
HT: Do you have any success stories about confidence created from students in The Sparkle Effect that you’d like to share?
SC: I will never forget my experiences with one of the girls on our local Sparkles squad. Alison arrived at the first practice with a unique set of challenges. She felt uncomfortable with the texture of the practice mats and refused to stand on them. For several practices, she came dressed in a variety of different wigs. She spoke only if called by the name of the particular character (like Hannah Montana) she had dressed as that day. At first, I didn’t know how to handle the situation, so I looked to Alison’s mom for guidance. Her advice: just go with it. Following her mother’s lead, I decided to meet Alison where she was, even if that meant calling her Hannah Montana for a few weeks. For a while, I let go of teaching Alison cheerleading skills altogether. Instead, I worked on building trust.
During the first few football games, Alison attached herself to one of our peer coaches–literally. Alison clung tightly to her arm, and would not to let go even to clap or jump. Eventually, about four months into the program, we began to see a shift. Bit by bit, we saw the wigs and costumes less often. Alison began to respond to her own name, to interact with the other girls, and to participate right along with everyone else. She even began calling her teammates in the evenings and arranging for movie dates and shopping excursions on the weekends.
Now, it is always Alison, not Hannah Montana, who shows up to practice. It is Alison who cheers in front of hundreds of fans. It is Alison who struts out onto the basketball court independently, confident that her teammates are there if she needs them, but also confident that she can perform beautifully in front of the students.
HT: What does confidence mean to you?
SC: Confidence is all about feeling comfortable with who you are – flaws, quirks and all. It’s about walking into a room and knowing people will accept, love, and value what you bring to the table. The Sparkle Effect knows that for students with disabilities, part of that confidence comes from inclusion – from being an important part of the high school social and athletic scene. That’s why we’re so passionate about growing this program to as many schools as possible.
HT: Outside of your own nonprofit, do you have any other favorite nonprofits of your own?
SC: Through my journeys I have met so many passionate and interesting young people with amazing non-profits. Unified Theater is one of my favorites; they’re based on the East Coast and create inclusive theater programs. There are also several non-profits that don’t necessarily pertain to my cause, but that I love nonetheless. A good friend of mine runs an organization called Move For Hunger, which gets moving companies to donate the non-perishable food of their clients to local food banks. I am in love with the American Widow Project. The founder, Taryn Davis, is one of the most amazing women I’ve had the privilege to know. I can only hope to bring half of the spirit, strength, and fire to my organization that Taryn brings to hers.
HT: Are you currently in college? What are you majoring in?
SC: I’m a sophomore at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. I plan on majoring in English.
HT: Where do you see The Sparkle Effect heading in five years time?
SC: My hope is that The Sparkle Effect continues to grow to as many schools as possible in the next five years. Our big concrete goal right now is 100 teams, but we hope that eventually inclusion will become as much a part of cheerleading as pom poms are.
HT: What’s your favorite thing about seeing students involved with The Sparkle Effect do on game night?
SC: For me, nothing beats those beautiful, genuine smiles. And I’m not just talking about the students with disabilities—I mean the entire crowd. It’s truly magical to see an entire community so enthusiastic and so engaged and invested in inclusion. It gives me hope for the future of all individuals with disabilities, and gives me confidence that The Sparkle Effect will continue make an impact for a long time.