News

Cheer On!

Sarah Cronk, 18, cofounder of the Sparkle Effect cheer program, wins big at the 2011 Do Something Awards

August 31, 2011
COURTESY SARAH CRONK

Sarah Cronk (center) visits a Sparkle Effect cheerleading squad. There are now 34 Sparkle squads across the country and in South Africa.

Iowa teen Sarah Cronk has even more to cheer about these days. This month, the 18-year-old learned she’s the grand-prize winner of the 2011 Do Something Award for her work with the Sparkle Effect. The student-run program was started by Cronk and her cheer squad teammate Sarah Herr in 2008. It encourages teens nationwide to include girls with disabilities on high school cheer squads.

This year’s star-studded Do Something Awards ceremony took place at the Hollywood Palladium, in Los Angeles, California. The event, hosted by Glee’s Jane Lynch, was taped on August 14 and broadcasted on VH1 on August 18. Throughout the evening, awards were handed out for categories ranging from Do Something Music Artist (presented to Justin Beiber for his work with the charity Pencils of Promise) to Do Something City (presented to New York City for its public transit initiatives).

Finally, at the end of the night, it was time for the grand prize: the 2011 Do Something Award. The winner, determined through a public online vote, receives a $100,000 grant to help fund his or her cause. Host Jane Lynch introduced the five nominees again, then opened the envelope. When Lynch called Cronk’s name, the surprised teen threw her hands over her mouth. Tears welled up her eyes as her fellow nominees came around to embrace her.

TFK spoke with Cronk after her big win. Keep reading to find out what the Sparkle Effect is all about, and why Cronk wanted to do something.

TFK:

What was going through your mind when Jane Lynch called your name?

SARAH CRONK:

I was in absolute, complete shock. I’m surprised I didn’t pass out on stage! Jane was awesome. She clearly saw that I was freaking out, so she put her arm around me and started whispering in my ear, “Congratulations, we’re so proud of you. You did such a good job.” I just looked up at her, and said [in a small voice], “Thank you!”

TFK:

How did you celebrate?

CRONK:

We went to the after party, and it was crazy. Everyone wanted to get a picture with me, including a couple of celebrities. It was unreal.

TFK:

Let’s go back to the beginning. What inspired you to start the first Sparkle Effect squad?

CRONK:

My older brother Charlie has disabilities. When he entered high school, he had a hard time making friends and getting involved. Then out of the blue, a popular upperclassman at our school, who was also captain of the swim team, invited my brother to sit with him at lunch. He eventually convinced Charlie to join the swim team. It completely changed my brother’s world. He ended up earning a varsity letter on the swim team. He’s doing extremely well.

I saw the way this one small gesture made such a huge impact. I got together with my cheer squad at my school, and we said, why can’t we do that too? So, we started the nation’s first high school cheer squad that includes students with disabilities. That’s how the Sparkle Effect was born.

Sarah Cronk accepts the award for the Sparkle Effect during the 2011 Do Something Awards at the Hollywood Palladium, in Los Angeles, California, on August 14.
KEVIN WINTER—GETTY IMAGES
Sarah Cronk accepts the award for the Sparkle Effect during the 2011 Do Something Awards at the Hollywood Palladium, in Los Angeles, California, on August 14.

TFK:

What were some of the challenges you had to overcome in creating that first squad?

CRONK:

Our school administrators were skeptical. High school cheerleaders are stereotypically known as being the most exclusive group, and we were coming to them asking to start this new program. That has a lot of risk involved. They said they would let us start it as a pilot program, and if it didn’t go over well with the students or if we started to lose interest, then they’d cut it. [That made us more determined to see it through.]

Also, I was a little nervous about bringing out the Sparkles to our first football game. We have an extremely rowdy student body, and I wasn’t sure how they were going to handle it. But they gave us a standing ovation and were cheering along with us.

TFK:

Why did you decide to grow the program beyond your own school?

CRONK:

The program got so popular at our school that more and more girls wanted to join. We couldn’t take on more participants without compromising the quality of our program. But we’re all about inclusion, so it felt wrong to turn people away. So, we thought, why can’t we get this started at other schools in our area? Once we did that, we thought, let’s take it nationwide! Now we have 34 squads across the country and in South Africa. It’s one of the only cheerleading squads in all of Africa!

TFK:

Sometimes you have to work with the girls who have special needs a little longer to get them to trust you. What do you do to get them to open up?

CRONK:

Overall, the program is not about cheerleading at all. Cheerleading is just the vehicle we use to drive the point home that it’s important to embrace everybody. In the beginning, you just have to meet the girls where they are. For example, at the squad at our school, there was a girl who came to practice every week with different wigs. One week she was Hannah Montana, and the next week she was someone from High School Musical. If we called her by her real name she would throw a huge tantrum.

She had a unique set of issues, and we weren’t sure what to do. It wasn’t necessarily behavior that we wanted to encourage, but we still wanted her to participate. Her mom said, “Just go with it, and eventually, she’ll be fine.” So, each day we would say, “Hey, Hannah Montana, how was your concert last night?” Bit by bit, we started seeing less of the costumes, and one day she came dressed in regular clothes and without a wig. We asked, “Hannah Montana, where’s your outfit?” And she said, “Oh, I’m not Hannah Montana today. I’m just Allison.” That was a big day. That was one of those times when you feel you’re making a difference.

TFK:

What keeps you motivated?

CRONK:

Hearing from parents and cheerleaders about how the Sparkle Effect has changed their lives. We’ve had girls say to us, “I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do before this, but now I want to go into Special Education.” Or, they’ll say, “I was scared to get involved, because I’ve never worked with people with disabilities before. But now I just see that they’re just like everyone else.” Parents have written to me and said, “I watched my daughter at practice and she said more in that 45 minutes than she’s said in the last 15 years.” Or, “My daughter’s had the best report card she’s ever had, and we think it’s because she’s more confident from cheerleading.” The students are experiencing the benefits of inclusion and learning to embrace people of all abilities. It’s extremely inspiring.

TFK:

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your experience?

CRONK:

The biggest lesson is to never be afraid to ask for help. I was 15 when I started this, and I had no idea what I was doing. I thought no one would be willing to help me. That wasn’t the case. I’ve been blown away by the support. There’s really no limit to what you can achieve, as long as you get the right support.

TFK:

What’s next for the Sparkle Effect?

CRONK:

Well, I’m going to college! That’ll be a big change for us. But we’re going to continue to work on creating squads and expanding our free on-site training programs and our uniform grant program. We’re working on getting an apparel line started so our squads can have T-shirts. The Do Something Award and the $100,000 grant has given us an awesome opportunity to grow and just become a better organization.

TFK:

Have you gotten any phone calls from people wanting to start a Sparkle Effect squad since the Do Something Awards aired?

CRONK:

We’ve gotten a couple of phone calls and tons and tons of emails from girls across the country who are interested in starting a Sparkle squad. We’re very excited about the possibilities.

 

To learn more about the Sparkle Effect and how you can create a squad in your area, visit thesparkleeffect.org.


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