Sarah Cronk, founder of The Sparkle Effect, is one of five finalists vying for DoSomething.org's $100,000 grant prize. The organization will announce the winner on VH1 on Thursday.
Get this: over five million students with disabilities attend public schools in the United States. Yet, despite this huge number, most high school sports and extracurricular activities fail to accommodate these students. As a result, students with disabilities often find themselves sidelined -- excluded from high school sports and activities and the critical social opportunities they provide.
This issue is personal for me. My older brother Charlie has a disability that prevents him from fully understanding social cues. As a result, Charlie, although very kind and socially motivated, has trouble making friends. His transition into high school was rough. He became depressed and anxious with the increased social demands. Then, a popular upperclassman, Jared, invited Charlie to sit at his lunch table, a small gesture with a huge impact. Soon, Jared persuaded Charlie to join the high school swim team, where Jared served as captain.
Of course, Charlie didn't just want to play sports. Like all high school students, he wanted to fit in. Jared helped to make that happen. He encouraged the other team members to likewise befriend Charlie. As a result, Charlie's high school experience changed dramatically. So did my perspective. I realized that only one group could effectively include teenagers with disabilities: other teens.
My sport, cheerleading, seemed like the perfect place to start. In 2008, the summer before my sophomore year, I joined with a few other girls on our varsity cheerleading squad and created the first high-school based inclusive cheerleading squad in the nation. For the past three years, our Spartan Sparkles, whose disabilities range from Down Syndrome to autism, have practiced and cheered alongside the varsity cheerleaders at home football and basketball games to roaring crowds and standing ovations!
In the spring of 2009, our Sparkles squad reached capacity. We simply couldn't add additional participants without compromising the integrity of our program. This broke my heart. We had created a program based on acceptance and inclusion, yet we were turning students away. I knew that I needed to find a way to help other high school students duplicate the success of our program. I created my non-profit, The Sparkle Effect, to provide everything students need to create an inclusive cheerleading squad: a cost-free Quick-Start Kit, uniform grants, free on-site training, and ongoing advice and support.
The outcome? To date, The Sparkle Effect has generated 33 squads in high schools from California to Connecticut! I've seen first-hand that inclusive cheerleading squads positively impact a high school's entire student body. This means that currently over 50,000 students nationwide are already experiencing the spirit and magic of inclusion. In fact, Sparkle Effect squads raise the spirit not just of a school, but of an entire community. Sparkle Effect teams have started in towns big and small across the country, potentially impacting a total community population of over three million!
Nationwide, students with disabilities are gaining confidence as they participate in activities with their peers, cheerleaders are learning and growing through mentoring others, and communities are coming to understand that when we open our minds and our hearts to people of all abilities, everyone benefits.
I feel extraordinarily privileged to be one of five finalists for the Do Something Awards, a joint effort between Do Something and Vh1 designed to "honor young people's commitment to social change." As a finalist, I have the opportunity to win the grand prize of $100,000 for The Sparkle Effect. Winning the grand prize would allow The Sparkle Effect to generate and tangibly support at least 150 more inclusive squads nationwide!
In the highly competitive world of high-school sports, teens are taught to perfect their skills, to conquer, to win. Sparkle Effect squads are not about perfection; they are about connection. In many towns across America, Friday night football and basketball games are the main event. Sparkle Effect teams nationwide are throwing a big bright spotlight on the importance of inclusion. As for the fans, they are leaving games entertained and inspired.
I believe that The Sparkle Effect can reach into virtually every high school in the country. When it does, game night in America will never be the same.