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VOL. 130 | NO. 243 | Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sarah Cronk Brings 'Sparkling' Nonprofit Resume to Varsity Spirit, Memphis

By LANCE WIEDOWER

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Sarah Cronk is 22 years old and a recent graduate of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She’s also new to the Bluff City, making the move to Memphis in September to begin a career in marketing at Varsity Spirit.

New Memphian Sarah Cronk, 22, is founder of The Sparkle Effect, a national nonprofit that helps students create school-based cheer and dance squads that bring together students with and without disabilities.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But serving as an executive? Well, she’s old hat at that game. Much of Cronk’s junior year in high school was spent traveling the country to spread the word about The Sparkle Effect, a nonprofit she founded at the age of 15 that helps students nationwide create school-based cheerleading and dance teams that bring together students with and without disabilities.

That same audacity she used to approach her high school’s administration about forming an inclusive high school cheerleading squad was what she used to reach out to national media.

“I’m 15, no money and no way to grow the organization,” she said. “I think it’s a good story and decided to reach out to national media organizations. The audacity of youth, I guess. A couple of weeks later I got a call from People magazine.”

That publication did a spread featuring The Sparkle Effect. Someone from ABC World News happened to see the feature, as did Oprah Winfrey. Suddenly, Cronk was on a national media tour appearing on MTV, “Good Morning America” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” twice.

In 2009, one of those Oprah appearances was called “Heroes Among Us.” Among the feel-good stories was pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who crash-landed a US Airways plane on the Hudson River. Cronk and The Sparkle Effect were there, too.

What started as that one five-person squad in 2009 – when Cronk was a freshman at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa – had grown to 35 squads by the time she graduated high school. Today, the organization has 165 squads across the nation. Not bad for a full-time student and part-time businesswoman.

Today, Cronk serves as president and creative director. Linda Mullen is executive director and the team has trainers spread throughout the country who help squads set up.

The Sparkle Effect team doesn’t have to do constant media tours and marketing like Cronk found herself doing in the beginning.

The Sparkle Effect, founded by Sarah Cronk when she was 15, has grown to include 165 teams across the country. Cronk recently moved to Memphis for a job with Varsity Spirit.

(Submitted)

“What we see happen a lot is if a team debuts in one city other teams they compete against see the team and they want on board, too,” Cronk said. “We end up having clusters. That’s how we’re growing organically. … We’re adding 20 to 30 teams a year.”

Humble beginnings to great things

A simple gesture by a high school student resonated with a young Cronk.

As an eighth-grader she watched her brother, older by 13 months, struggle to make friends. A high school freshman at the time, he was high functioning on an autism spectrum. One of the popular boys on the swim team made the simple gesture of inviting him to join.

“He went from being depressed and anxious to one of the most well-liked kids around,” Cronk said. “When he was included it struck a chord with me and made me realize how easy it is to take the extra step and appreciate someone for who they are and go beyond their disability.”

The Sparkle Effect began as a website with an 11-step quick start guide that anyone interested in starting a program could follow. But while many communities were interested, not all schools had the financial resources to see through the creation of a cheer or dance squad.

Cronk’s employer has played an important role on that front. Early on, Cronk wrote a “sweet letter” to company CEO Jeff Webb asking for advice.

That advice became a uniform grant program.

Varsity helps grow the program by marketing it through its camps and competitions. And two representatives from Varsity sit on The Sparkle Effect’s board of directors.

Seeing the organization grow is gratifying, but Cronk said watching how the inclusive cheer squads can make an entire student body more accepting of others is most important.

“We hear a lot from families of students with disabilities that being included on a cheer team opened doors for them,” Cronk said. “Once a cheer team becomes inclusive they see that and the next thing you know students with disabilities are involved in choir or theater or other school sports. They get to be part of the high school culture.”

Creating The Sparkle Effect wasn’t easy, particularly because Cronk was so young. But when that first squad performed at the first football game of Cronk’s sophomore year, the student section cheered, treating the squad members like celebrities.

“We’ve had parents sit in on a practice and they’re crying before the end of it,” she said. “I had a dad cry and he said, ‘I heard her say more in 10 minutes than the last 10 years.’ It renews their confidence.

“What we see in a lot of schools is kids with disabilities aren’t bullied but they’re invisible. They walk hallways with no one smiling or looking at them. Now they’re walking the hallway in a cheer uniform getting a high five and congratulations.”

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