The Edmonds-Woodway cheer squad is shattering the preconceived notion of exclusivity with help from the Sparkle Effect.
The national program encourages school cheer squads and dance teams to include students with disabilities.
Local cheerleaders invited girls with disabilities to join the Sparkles last summer. Three accepted.
Senior Kendall Lancaster, 18, joined the Sparkles as a chance to learn new skills and make more friends.
A knack for forming the pyramid and performing in front of a crowd that’s cheering her on have been the highlights of her experience.
“People recognize me in the hall in my uniform and it makes me feel happy,” Lancaster said. “People in the hall say, ‘Congratulations,’ and they like me being there.”
Edmonds-Woodway is the first high school in the state to offer this program, which is open to girls attending any of the Edmonds School District’s four high schools, cheer coach Brianne Sturm said.
“We get so focused on sports, we forget to step outside and see different groups,” Sturm said.
After learning about the Sparkle Effect on an episode of “Oprah,” Sturm gauged district parents’ interest. Backed with parent support, Sturm propositioned the squad. The girls agreed.
The inclusive program gives girls an opportunity to connect with their school who might not have had the chance before, said cheer co-captain Emma Tomsett, 17.
“We want to show the student body what we see,” Tomsett said. “We see them in a different light. If we can do it, they can do it.”
Students with disabilities have Special Olympics as an option, but most people don’t get to see those achievements, said co-captain Liz Wilson, 17.
“We want (the general school population) to see past the disability and see them as a person,” Wilson said.
“They have their own spotlight now,” added co-captain Monica Nash, 17.
Often students with disabilities get grouped and lose the chance to branch out and try activities, Sturm said.
“They get to be a part of something with mainstream kids,” she said.
It’s common at football games to see students in the stands reach down and high five the Sparkles after they’re done cheering, Sturm said.
“It’s not about perfection, it’s about having fun,” parent Rosemary Lavery said. One of her daughters is a Sparkle and the other is an Edmonds-Woodway cheerleader.
Lancaster’s mother, Denise Lancaster, said it’s important to note these girls are being invited into a group of peers who don’t have to be inclusive. In fact cheerleaders stay after their practice is over to teach and mentor the Sparkles.
“They’re being invited into an environment they wouldn’t be invited into,” Denise Lancaster said.
Her daughter has participated in Special Olympics which helped improve her gross motor skills. Being involved with the Special Olympics and Sparkles has had a positive impact on Kendall Lancaster both psychologically and physically, Denise Lancaster said.
“I’m thrilled to death for my daughter. She’s doing something she wouldn’t (typically) be able to do. And as a mom, I think, ‘Oh my god, my daughter’s a cheerleader,’” she said.