I was recently watching an episode of Oprah, saluting headline making heroes, who have made valuable contributions to their communities. Watching the show brought tears to my eyes and I immediately felt compelled to contact the group you’re about to read about.
The Spartan Sparkles cheerleading squad is run by two spectacular cheerleaders from Pleasantville Iowa, Sarah Herr and Sarah Cronk which is the first of it’s kind in a high school in America. The Sparkles are aged 8 to 15, all born with a range of disabilities from Down Syndrome to Autism.
Sarah and Sarah work with this team of beautiful young girls, to help build their self-esteem, grow and become part of a team. Having a Down Syndrome sister myself, I understand the struggle children with disabilities face every day with not being accepted into a normal community, and making friends the way people without disabilities do. Sarah and Sarah have built a solid bridge for these unbelievably inspiring children, who are now part of a world they were once never part of.
The interview below was such a precious moment for me, and I value people like Sarah and Sarah who have so much time, patience and love for the people they have met and made amazing friendships with.
I’ve also attached the segment with Oprah below, please watch it and have tissues ready.
It’s with great pleasure to introduce you to Sarah Herr and Sarah Cronk, the real heroes of our World…
Please explain exactly what Sparkles is and what it’s all about…
Sarah Herr: It is a special needs cheerleading squad cheering in a high school setting, but it is about so much more. It is about accepting people who are different. We are able to make a difference in these girls lives and see them grow. In return they have made a huge difference in our lives, taught us so much about ourselves, and helped us learn lessons that most people don’t have the opportunity to, let alone high school girls.
Sarah Cronk: The Spartan Sparkles are our high school’s cheerleading squad including students with disabilities. There are currently 10 Sparkles and 8 varsity cheerleaders who serve as their coaches. All of us cheer together at our school’s home football and basketball games.
What was the drive behind you wanting to create such a unique concept to include people that are somewhat forgotten about?
Sarah Herr: Well it started with volunteering at the special Olympics, and I was so moved when we worked with the athletes that it made me want to make the connection with the special needs community more permanent. I had seen all-star teams with special needs squads perform so I went to my coach with the idea of starting it in our high school and with the support of my coach the journey began.
Sarah Cronk: Every year, our squad travels to the Iowa Special Olympics and puts on a cheerleading workshop for the athletes. Two years ago after the event, all of us were inspired by the experience and wanted to make our connection with the special needs community more permanent. Also, a few of the original Sparkles coaches have siblings with disabilities so they were quick to jump on board.
How has it been perceived by the public?
Sarah Herr: Our community has been very accepting and has been behind this program from the beginning.
Sarah Cronk: Our community has accepted the Sparkles with open arms and hearts. At the first game the Sparkles cheered at, the entire crowd cheered louder than they ever had before. They haven’t stopped cheering since.
What challenges did you face initially to start up the team? Are there any challenges now you face to keep it going?
Sarah Herr: Some of the challenges that we faced in the beginning was adults trusting that we stay interested in the project. Once they saw how dedicated we were they had full trust in us. Our age will continue to be a challenge for us but it is also a benefit in many ways.
Sarah Cronk: At first, when we approached our school with the idea of starting the Sparkles, they were a little bit skeptical. It’s very rare for a group of teenage girls to feel so passionate about a cause like this. They worried that we would only be interested in running the Sparkles team for a few weeks and then leave the girls behind. We also had some issues in the beginning with funding, but thanks to DoSomething.org and the Bettendorf Rotary, we earned grant money to pay for our first year.
What have you learnt from the girls in the group that have a range of disabilities?
Sarah Herr: I have learned so much about leadership through teaching cheers to organizing events. I have been the person in charge of the whole squad with many distractions multiple times and it really taught me how to prioritize and deal with problems that a typical teenagers experiences don’t allow them to.
Sarah Cronk: The Sparkles have taught me more than I ever could have imagined. I have learned so much about determination and perseverance through adversity. They have also helped me learn to see the person and not the disability, and to accept and understand the unique gifts in everybody.
What do you think the girls in the group have learnt from you?
Sarah Herr: I have seen major improvement in their self confidence. Girls that before would barley talk to people they knew were giving hugs to people they just met. Girls who wouldn’t walk in front of a group of 15 people were on stage in front of thousands. They have grown so much and I hope that I was able to help with that transformation.
Sarah Cronk: I think that being on the Sparkles team has taught the girls to feel more comfortable with themselves. One of the girls on the squad used to come to practice in various wigs, making us call her by different names of celebrities (like Hannah Montana.) I remember the first day that she came to practice without a wig, and was happy to just be herself. Moments like that that remind me why I do this.
What are some of the valuable skills you think they have learnt from you, which they could have never learnt in a life skills group or special units in school?
Sarah Herr: I feel that we treated them more like equals then special needs girls. This helped their self esteem so much because instead of them viewing themselves as special needs they viewed themselves as average girls, which is the way they should be treated.
Sarah Cronk: Our program is different from many other special education programs in that it is completely inclusive. Our Sparkles practice and cheer side-by-side with typically developing peers. Therefore, the Sparkles program teaches them how to socialize better with people without disabilities and better prepares them to function in social settings later in life.
Where do you both see yourself in the next 5 years and would you still like to be doing something like what you are doing now – or do you have other career paths you’d like to pursue?
Sarah Herr: I hope to be in medical school in 5 years. I want to help in medical research for autism. I would also still like to be involved in the Sparkle Effect and have it not be abnormal to have special needs cheerleading at a high school.
Sarah Cronk: I five years I see myself studying English and psychology at a small liberal arts college. Although I will no longer be a Sparkles coach, I hope to still be running The Sparkle Effect and still supporting squads across the nation as they start their own Sparkles squads.
What are your 3 pet hates?
1) I don’t like people who give up, I am very stubborn that way and won’t stop trying until I succeed.
2) I don’t like people who don’t want to learn more. I’m not saying everyone has to be a nerd like me but everyone has a passion and theirs always more to learn about it.
3) I also have problems with pessimistic people. I am very optimistic and I don’t understand when people are not.
1) I hate the sound of people eating or chewing gum. (Or really any other sounds that mouths make)
2) I hate it when I can hear what other people are listening to through their headphones
3) I hate it when people call things are “gay” or “retarded” as an insult.
What do the parents and siblings of the girls in Sparkle think, and do they tell you about any developments they see in their children as a direct result from Sparkle?
Sarah Herr: They are so sweet to us and are very grateful. Every sparkle parent has told me how their child has grown so much because of this and they are shocked that simply cheering could do this. It is amazing to have their support and I will be forever in debt to them for helping start such a amazing program.
Sarah Cronk: The parents of the Sparkles have reported increased physical fitness, self-esteem, and confidence since they joined the squad. One Mom even expressed an improvement in her daughter’s grades since she became a Sparkle.
If there was one thing that you’d like to educate the general public on when it comes to interacting and dealing with the disabled community, what would it be?
Sarah Herr: To think of how you would like to be treated. You would not want people to make fun of your disability or to not believe you could accomplish something because of it, and they don’t either.
Sarah Cronk: It’s not about doing someone else a favor. When we open our arms and our hearts to people with disabilities, we all benefit. We all have something to learn from each other’s unique gifts and talents. I have learned more than I ever could have imagined working with the Sparkles, and I’ve also made some of the best friends I’ve ever had.
Tell us about your experience on Oprah and with meeting Miley Cyrus and performing on stage with her at her concert?
Sarah Herr: The whole trip was unreal. I loved meeting Miley and being on Oprah was remarkable! However some of my favorite parts was hanging out with the girls on the bus playing iSpy and seeing them enjoy meeting Miley.
Sarah Cronk: The entire Oprah/Miley experience was so incredible. It didn’t even resonate that it actually happened until several months afterward. What was most fun about it for me was being able to witness the whole thing through the Sparkles’ eyes. I could tell the entire time that they were having the time of their lives, which made everything so much more exciting for me. Not to mention Oprah treated us extremely well and kept us in the most beautiful hotels and served us with surprise after surprise. Miley was also very generous with her time and did very well with the Sparkles.
What was Oprah like? Have you had contact with her since?
Sarah Herr: Oprah was fantastic! She is hilarious and so caring and generous. I have kept in touch with our producer Stacy and we exchange emails frequently. I love Stacy and everything she does for so many people.
Sarah Cronk: Oprah was everything we could have hoped for. She was so kind, generous, funny, and had a very warm personality. We haven’t had any contact with her since, but we will never forget everything she has done for us.
What affect do you think this experience had on the girls?
Sarah Herr: It was great to see their faces light up and meet one of their idols! They were in shock, and so was I, at first. I feel that it brought they team together so much more because they all experienced it together and they will always have that!
Sarah Cronk: I think it has shown the girls that dreams really do come true, which is an important lesson when you’re young, and even more so when you have a disability. They have been denied a lot of experiences that a most typically developing students have, which I think made this experience even more special to the girls.
What do your own parents and siblings think of you and Sparkle?
Sarah Herr: They are very supportive. My little sister who is nine watches many practices and she has asked multiple times why she is not allowed to be a Sparkle. I have to explain to her that the team is only for children with disabilities.
Sarah Cronk: When I was little, my dad always used to tell me, “There are two ways to get into the newspaper: doing something good, or doing something bad.” Now, every time the Sparkles make it into our local newspaper, he always says, “See, remember what I told you?”I know my whole family is very proud of me and what I do with the Sparkles
Can you think of a time you have been so proud of yourself that you had a smile from ear to ear?
Sarah Herr: I’ve always been more proud of the girls when they overcome their fears. That is what always makes me smile from ear to ear.
Sarah Cronk: What really makes me proud is seeing the improvements in the Sparkles. I can’t help but smile when I see them walk up to people and introduce themselves when they used to be painfully shy. Of course experiences like Oprah and Miley have been so fun, but it’s really the little moments that get to me.
Can you think of a time that you thought it was all just too hard and you doubted yourself?
Sarah Herr: No, I have always been determined to make it work and never thought it wouldn’t work. I was very optimistic throughout the whole program.
Sarah Cronk: There are definitely times when being a Sparkles coach isn’t easy. Sometimes the girls have bad days and it’s hard to be patient and understanding. I just always have to look forward and think “next practice will be better.”
Watch the amazing segment on Oprah below: