Oak Creek - They are called the Sparkles, a fitting name, say those who know the six girls on the Oak Creek High School special needs cheerleading squad.
"They love cheering, and they love being part of something at the school," said Kris Archambeau, varsity cheerleading coach.
Kathy Lueneburg, whose daughter Michelle is on the Sparkles squad, agreed: "She feels very good to belong to something in school. She's proud of her cheers and likes to show off her high kick."
The squad was formed just two years ago, said Archambeau, after the coach at the time learned about the Sparkle Effect, a program that helps students across the country start cheerleading and dance teams that include those with disabilities.
Founded by Sarah Cronk in 2009 when she was a student at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa, the one-of-a-kind program now extends to 57 communities across the United States. Oak Creek's squad is only one of two in Wisconsin; the other is at Barron High School.
"The Sparkle Effect is the only organization that includes cheering programs," said Cronk.
Now 18 and in college, Cronk said she started the nonprofit after volunteering one year for the Special Olympics. The fact that her older brother, Charlie, has special needs was also a factor.
"The transition to high school was tough for him," she said. "A popular upper classman reached out to him. It really turned my brother's world around. … It's been an extremely personal cause for me."
The program took root at her high school and she wondered, "Why can't we make this a permanent part of our cheer program?"
The program was embraced there, and it quickly caught on elsewhere. Cronk was able to secure grants, including a $100,000 Do Something Now award, which makes it possible to providing training and money for special needs cheerleading uniforms.
"We've been really thrilled with the success of the program," she said.
So has Archambeau, who said the 16 regular education students at Oak Creek High teach the cheers and to the Sparkles.
"We received a grant from the Sparkle Effect that helped us pay for the uniforms for the Sparkle girls," she said.
She added that training was provided to the regular cheerleaders to help them teach simple cheers - and respond to any backlash that might occur.
"They came here and explained to them what might happen - making fun," Archambeau said. "That hasn't happened here."
What has happened is that students who had little contact with each other before have become friends.
Lizzie Bragstad, a senior on the regular cheerleading squad, said she has seen the Sparkles around school, but they are in different classes.
"I've known them, but I never got to interact with them," she said. "We've become like friends. They're not afraid to come up to me and talk to me. They give me hugs. It's a way to connect with them."
Likewise for Angela Marchese, one of the Sparkles. "I like talking to the other cheerleaders. I like cheering at the games. It's fun to see the people in the crowd cheer back."
That's really the point, too, said Lueneburg, who said there are few other extracurricular activities for special needs students.
"It's kind of like every girl's dream," she said of cheerleading. "For a special-needs child, it's just that much more."
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