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?