COLUMBUS, Ohio — Under the Friday night lights of the football stadium at Independence High School, Lauren Flynn rallied her pep squad.

Just minutes into the game against the Marion-Franklin Red Devils, the Independence 76ers had marched into the opposing team’s territory, and the crowd needed a little coaxing to come alive.

“All right, ya’ll, let’s hear an I-H-S!” Flynn shouted at the group of six cheerleaders assembled on the track near the 50-yard line.

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After Flynn led a count-off of “5, 6, 7, 8,” the students — pompoms in hand — chanted “I-H-S! Hey, we’re the best!”

Decked out in 76ers colors and sporting other signs of their school loyalty, the Sparklers — cheerleaders with physical and mental disabilities, including some who use wheelchairs and walkers — perform during the first quarter of every home football game for Independence, a Columbus high school on the Southeast Side.

Never failing to exude school spirit, the Sparklers — overseen by Flynn and Sam Wyatt, another Independence special education teacher — are a fan favorite.

“They always just get a huge ovation from the crowd, and it seems like everyone is watching them,” said Nicole Chavers, a special education teacher at the high school and founder of the squad. “They love every single minute of it.”

Chavers formed the Sparklers in 2012 after watching a segment on NBC Nightly News about the Sparkle Effect, a national organization with the mission of involving students with developmental disabilities in sports and other school activities.

“I thought it was wonderful,” she said.

The Sparklers originated with five members in the fall of 2013. The current squad has seven members — senior Rebecca Breedlove, 18; senior Dalaney Banks, 18; junior Diamond Jackson, 17; junior Tamara Perry, 19; sophomore Niani Moon, 15; freshman Priscilla Jenkins, 15; and senior De’Ontay Sanders, 20 — whose disabilities range from orthopedic impairments to cerebral palsy.

Although the Sparklers aren’t accredited through the national organization — some of the guidelines, such as a requirement that activities be offered throughout the academic year, aren’t feasible for the school — its mission mirrors that of the Sparkle Effect. It is also the only such group within Columbus City Schools, district spokeswoman Jacqueline Bryant said.

“These types of team efforts are examples of how we meet our students’ needs and interests while advancing our commitment to provide engaging and rewarding opportunities for all students,” Bryant said in an email.

Chavers coached the group until two years ago, when she stepped down to spend more time with her family.

Flynn and Wyatt said the visibility of the Sparklers boosts members’ sense of belonging and their self-esteem.

“They love the recognition,” Wyatt said. “They feel a part of a team. They feel they’re just as much a part of the school as everyone else.”

Added Flynn: “It’s great for them to have something that’s theirs only. They have a lot of ownership of that.”

The Sparklers perform at pep rallies and football games, often joined for some chants by the varsity cheerleading squad — the Liberty Belles.

The coaches are exploring the possibility of introducing the Sparklers to other sports, including basketball.

The group’s members say they enjoy the camaraderie and the adrenaline rush of being in front of the crowd during games.

“I like to cheer with my friends, my beautiful friends,” Jackson said. “It’s fun.”

Jenkins said she enjoys pumping up the crowd.

“I get them very excited,” said Jenkins, who is often joined at games by her 4-year-old sister, Gabriella.

At the most recent home game — a 14-12 loss for the 76ers — Jenkins wore a hand-sewn uniform made by her mom, Beatriz Jenkins, who stood by the fence near the Sparklers with other parents eager to support the cheerleaders.

“I’m happy seeing her thriving,” Beatriz Jenkins said. “It gives them an opportunity to do something they love to do that is sometimes unobtainable.”

© 2018 The Columbus Dispatch
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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