“We love Sparkles! We love Sparkles!” the crowd cheered at last week’s homecoming rally at Edmonds-Woodway High School.
The E-W school gymnasium roared with chants throughout the rally, but it wasn’t until the “Sparkles” performed that the entire student body joined as one.
The “Sparkles” are a group of eight girls with developmental disabilities who join the cheerleading team to pump up school spirit at assemblies and games. Though they are a separate squad, the Sparkles practice and perform with the cheerleading team, and wear the same uniform.
“It’s all about the social aspect,” said EWHS cheer coach Brianne Sturm. “Hanging out with their friends, sitting on the sidelines together and wearing the uniform to school on Fridays.”
The EWHS team is a part of a national organization called “The Sparkle Effect”, which helps schools nationwide bring students with disabilities into school-based cheerleading and dance programs.
The key word being “bring.” The outreach director for “The Sparkle Effect,” Linda Mullen, explains that there are many well-intentioned special-needs programs, but most of them are segregated.
“The magic happens when everybody comes together,” Mullen said.
According to Mullen, this is especially important when the biggest battle developmentally disabled students face is invisibility. The cheerleading team not only gives special-needs students a chance to have the spotlight, but also creates a space for conversation with their peers.
A major change Sturm has noticed in the Sparkles squad is a jump in the girls’ confidence level.
“It’s been a special experience for me to watch them grow,” said Sturm, a health and fitness teacher at College Place Middle School who has known some of the team members since seventh grade.
Sturm got the idea to start a squad after watching the original “Sparkles” team on the Oprah show. However, when she first pitched the idea to the Edmonds School Board, she was met with hesitancy.
“No one was against it, but no one was on board,” Sturm said.
Thanks to the coach’s passionate personality and self-described “stubbornness,” she still made it happen. Three years later, the support is unanimous.
Between students giving the Sparkles hugs on the sidelines to teachers bragging about the team’s success, it’s clear the “Sparkles” have won the hearts of many.
“These teams are a recipe for goodness,” Mullen said. “They generate so much positive energy and it changes not only the students involved, but also the entire community.”
While there are 108 teams across the country, the EWHS team is the only one in Washington state. Sturm said she would love to see the program at more schools in the Edmonds School District and beyond.
“I’ve started conversation with people, but it hasn’t gone anywhere yet,” Sturm said. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
— By Marika Price