Keira Kelly squirmed with the tenuous excitement of a girl readying to open a soda can she’s just finished shaking. Dressed to the nines in a black and gold University of Iowa cheerleading uniform and clutching a Hawkeye-emblazoned backpack, Kelly focused with rapt attention on the nondescript dance studio’s door.
Soon, Katie Lipes came bounding in, ready to throw her arms around Kelly, and stopped short. “What are you wearing?” the 19-year-old, who has Down syndrome, asked incredulously.
“My new uniform,” Kelly said, holding out the backpack. “And here, there’s one for you, too.”
While the pair looked the part of Iowa cheerleaders and knew the Hawkeye routines inside and out, Kelly and Lipes are so much more than cheerleaders. They are Sparkles.
The Sparkle Effect, a nonprofit founded in 2008 by 15-year-old Iowan Sarah Cronk, helps high schools and universities start inclusive “Sparkle” squads, cheer or dance teams that combine typically developing students and students with disabilities. So far, the group has founded more than 168 Sparkle teams in 29 states and interest continues to grow every year, Cronk said.
The idea for the Sparkle Effect came to Cronk, now 23, when she noticed systemic exclusion of students with disabilities from activities in her high school. These classmates weren’t so much bullied as they were ignored, “walking through the hallways without a single person looking at them or smiling at them,” she said.
Which is why the word “inclusive” comes up over and over when you talk to Cronk or Linda Mullen, her mother and the Sparkle Effect’s executive director. A Sparkle squad is not a team of solely disabled teens, it is a team that very purposely mixes kids of all abilities, they emphasize.
“We as a society have decided that segregation is not OK anymore and yet there are still organizations creating separate programs just for kids with disabilities,” Cronk said.
“If we aren’t crossing social boundaries, can we really say we’re being as inclusive as possible?” she continued. “If we aren’t including people from all walks of life in our activities, can we really say we’re as inclusive as possible?”
Inclusion changes lives, Cronk added, accentuating the changes.