A teenager who started the nation’s first school-based cheerleading squad including students both with and without disabilities is getting $100,000 to expand the concept.
Sarah Cronk, 18, got the idea to include students with disabilities on a cheerleading squad at her Bettendorf, Iowa high school in 2008 after observing the boost her brother with autism received when he was befriended by the school’s swim team captain.
Since then, 33 schools located as far away as South Africa have replicated Cronk’s original squad comprised of students with various disabilities and typically developing teens who act as peer coaches. All of the students perform together at high school football and basketball games.
Now, Cronk’s organization — The Sparkle Effect — will get $100,000 after winning a Do Something Award during a star-studded awards show on VH1 last week that featured celebrities including Justin Bieber, Will Ferrell, Demi Lovato and David Beckham.
Organizers say the honor is “the largest and most prestigious prize in the world for young people and social change.”
Cronk indicates the funds will go toward training, uniforms and other supports so that the program can expand to more schools. But ultimately, she says the initiative is about far more than sports.
“Students at all the schools have reported that cheerleaders who are on the squads who have disabilities are being included outside of the squad,” Cronk said in a video that aired during the VH1 show. “People are more willing to talk to them at school. It puts the spotlight on their abilities rather than their disabilities.”