Special needs students sparkling as cheerleaders

Tahoma High and Kentwood are among several schools in Washington state that have begun inclusive cheerleading teams through Sparkle Effect.

A chance to shine.

That’s what Allison Bureau saw for special needs students on the evening news in 2012 during a segment about an organization called Sparkle Effect. The nonprofit, which was started by a high school student in Iowa, is dedicated to facilitating and supporting inclusive cheerleading teams — teams that have cheerleaders with special needs.

Sparkle Effect facilitates training for team advisers and for peer cheerleaders and pays for the cost of the team uniform for the cheerleaders with special needs, who are also known as Sparkles.

“It’s not really about cheerleading,” Bureau said. “I knew nothing about cheerleading.”

After the newscast Bureau, whose elementary-age son has Down Syndrome, started researching the group more and discovered that, at the time, only one high school in the state, Edmonds-Woodway, had a Sparkle Effect program. She started contacting high schools, pitching the program, and to date four other high schools have started teams, with several more lined up to start in the fall. Among the new teams are Sparkles for the Tahoma High Bears and the Kentwood Conquerors.

“How do I make a difference in my son’s life as he goes through school?” Bureau said she asked of herself. And for her, Sparkle Effect goes beyond that. It’s about helping students with special needs be included, get to know their peers, and have another opportunity to socialize and grow in confidence. It’s also a chance for general education students to learn about inclusion and acceptance.

“We need to have disability awareness,” Bureau said. “It’s such a huge thing.”

Bureau said that adults at schools are often hesitant when she first approaches them because they are concerned about how the Sparkles will be treated by their peers but, Bureau said, at the schools that have started a program the Sparkles have been treated with kindness by the students.

“It’s amazing what you see in the schools,” Bureau said. “I’m a parent of a child with special needs and I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought they were going to get made fun of.”

Bureau is the adviser for the Sparkles at Tahoma High and when leaders at Sparkle Effect learned about Bureau and the work she was doing they asked her if she would be the Northwest Regional Director of Outreach. She accepted.

“The best thing is going to watch them (the Sparkles) perform and talk to the parents or the cheerleaders,” Bureau said.

The Sparkles at Tahoma began with the basketball season this winter. So far the team has two Sparkles, who are paired with peer cheerleaders — students who volunteered to work with the Sparkles and help them learn routines. The Sparkles practice once a week and cheer during the first two quarters of the games and during the halftime performance.

The growth that takes place in the Sparkles is amazing, Bureau said.

“They go from being shy, to being happier, more energized,” Bureau said. “Parents of Sparkles say it changed their kids’ lives.”

Kentwood also started a Sparkle team this year. Kim Kawachi is the director and head coach of the cheer program as well as the adviser for the Sparkles. Ben Canty, a Kentwood assistant cheer coach, also helped run the Sparkle program.

The Kentwood program is open to students from across the district and this year six Sparkles join the team.

“There has been a huge difference in the athletes that I’ve noticed, both in the sparkles and their peer helpers,” Kawachi wrote in an email. “Inclusion, I’ve learned, is extremely important to the special needs community. We were happy to see both sides learning from each other, making new friends, and having a genuinely great time. At times, it was arguable who was learning more from who. These are lessons that we as coaches can’t always teach, and that’s when we have to let life experience come in and offer its help. I don’t think either group would have changed this experience for the world.”

Sadie Jackson, a sophomore and cheerleader at Tahoma, said she knew wanted to help the Sparkles when the opportunity came up.

“I’ve always liked helping people and I thought it would be cool if I got to sit down and help them become a Sparkle cheerleader,” Jackson said. “My favorite part has been letting them perform. It’s so cool to see — once the performance is over — how everyone cheers for them. It’s cool to let them have a chance to do what everyone else can in the school.”

Ann-Marie Croy, whose daughter, Mackenzie Croy, is one of the Tahoma Sparkles, has seen her daughter flourish as a cheerleader.

Ann-Marie said that when she heard about the program she knew it was something Mackenzie would love because she has always loved to dance. Ann-Marie explained that Mackenzie had taken dance classes when she was younger but it got to a point where she couldn’t keep up with the other students and they couldn’t find a class for students with special needs.

Ann-Marie explained that being on the team and getting to know the other cheerleaders makes Mackenzie happy. “It’s a dream come true for her,” Ann-Marie said. “She’s just thriving and loving it so much.”