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Human Interest

Iowa Woman Makes Cheerleader Dreams Come True for Students with Disabilities

Updated

Sarah Cronk’s voice breaks when she recalls fans at a 2008 Pleasant Valley High School football game roaring “Let’s go Sparkles, let’s go.”

She was a cheerleader at the Bettendorf, Iowa, school watching as her dream of integrating students with and without developmental disabilities into one cheer squad become a reality. Now that “The Sparkles” has grown into The Sparkle Effect – a national nonprofit with 180 teams in 29 states – Cronk still marvels at its impact.

“Two team captains both told me with tears in their eyes, ‘We love this. Leading this team is what we were put on this Earth to do,’ ” says Cronk, now 23 and living in Memphis,  of a recent visit to a veteran Ohio team. “I almost burst into tears…It drives home the point that everyone benefits from involvement from The Sparkle Effect.”

Cronk started the Sparkle Effect after she saw her  brother Charlie, who has developmental delays, upset when other kids at his school wouldn’t let him join them at lunch.

“Our whole family was upset, but there wasn’t much we could do,” says Cronk who was in middle school at the time. “I remember all of us just hoping that someday, somebody would include him.”

That day came when a standout student athlete waved the hesitant freshman over to the table where the swim team was lunching.

That small gesture of kindness changed everything. For Charlie, it led to confidence, friendships and a place on the swim team. For his family, it replaced worry with joy. And for Sarah it hatched The Sparkle Effect.

Sarah Cronk (middle) and the Sparkle Effect cheerleading squad at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa./Kathryn Gamble
Sarah Cronk (middle) and the Sparkle Effect cheerleading squad at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa./Kathryn Gamble

Cronk’s passion for the organization, even as a high school student, so impressed those at Varsity Spirit that the company became a major financial supporter of the organization. They also teamed with Cronk, who is president and creative director of The Sparkle Effect and a marketing professional at Varsity Spirit in Memphis.

“Sarah was only 15 when she took this very small idea…and made it something that impacts schools across the country,” said Nicole Lauchaire, a Varsity Spirit vice president. “She is truly committed to making sure this organization doesn’t grow too fast and fizzle out.”

And the results of that commitment are tangible. Greg Dwyer’s daughter Katie, who has autism, grew from one of the first “Sparkles” to a 19-year old college student.

“How do you describe something you didn’t know that you needed until someone came in and presented it,” says Dwyer. “Sparkles came in and carried her to her dreams. And there are a lot of wonderful stories like that.”

The question of how to grow the Sparkle Effect shifts constantly, says Cronk, a graduate of Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington.

“Ultimately, I want to run The Sparkle Effect out of business. I know that sounds crazy, but I want us as a nation to get to a point where inclusion is the norm and not the exception,” says Cronk. “I want us to arrive at a place where we don’t need organizations like The Sparkle Effect because inclusion is just the natural set point for schools nationwide.”