Chloe McClellan has always been timid.
She’s a quiet 17-year-old who likes to be alone and prefers to observe activities. So joining the Sparkles cheerleading squad at Westside High School was a bit out of character—but in a good way, mom Kathy McClellan said.
Getting in front of a crowd of people and performing strikes fear in many people’s hearts, but Chloe says cheering in front of others is one of the best feelings she’s ever felt in her life.
“I love shaking the pom-poms,” she says in a soft voice that is almost whisper.
Chloe has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder associated with intellectual and physical delay, and low muscle tone.
Being apart of the Sparkles, Kathy says, “helps her.”
The Sparkles squad, in its ninth year at Westside High School, is part of a nationwide program. The first Sparkles squad formed in 2008 in Bettendorf, Iowa, to include cheerleaders who were “differently abled.” The next year, the nonprofit Sparkle Effect was formed to further give students with disabilities an opportunity to cheer on inclusive teams.
There are more than 150 inclusive cheer and dance teams in 30 states. Westside is among others in Omaha, such as Millard North and Burke, who have hosted such programs.
A Sparkles squad, according to The Sparkle Effect’s regulations, must have a minimum of four students with disabilities and a minimum of six students without disabilities, and all students must be equal team members.
Once a school expresses interest in having a Sparkles squad, the Sparkle Effect sends a trainer to work with the team, and selects two captains to lead the squad.
Now that Chloe is a junior and one of the oldest Sparkle members, she’s excited to help others learn the ropes and expectations within the cheer team, even though she is not a captain this year.
“She puts on her Sparkles uniform with great pride,” Kathy says. “She was extremely nervous at first but now she understands how much of a big deal it is.”
According to the Sparkle Effect’s website, more than 5 million students with disabilities attend public schools in the United States.
“It’s just that the exposure and inclusiveness is so important,” Kathy says.
Kathy remembers the systemic exclusion of students with disabilities from activities and access to classrooms in her years at middle and high school. These classmates weren’t so much bullied as they were ignored, she explains.
“Of course, these students at the same high school should be able to experience what everyone else experiences,” Kathy says. “They should be able to have the same opportunities.”
The word “inclusive” appears often in conversations at Westside, Millard, and Burke, and rightfully so. A Sparkles squad is a team that purposely mixes kids of all abilities and talents. All members of the squad cheer on the sidelines during football games. During games played in the gym, the Sparkles members sit and cheer in the stands and come together with the other squad members to perform a halftime dance routine. (Regulations restrict the number of cheerleaders on the sidelines in a gymnasium.)
The Sparkles cheer team opens the idea to have students with disabilities in drama club and choir, on the newspaper staff, and participating in other school activities. It’s a visible display of acceptance.
Chloe lights up when other Sparkles cheerleaders greet her in the school hallways.
“It makes her feel so special,” mom said, “It makes her day.”
The squad practices during the school day as any squad would. The Sparkles have a peer-to-peer partnership system, which means each girl has a partner on the cheer team. “They keep each other accountable and striving to be better not just in cheer, but in life,” says Katie Healey, the school’s Sparkles director.
Donna Sommerer’s daughter Regan, who graduated from Westside in spring 2019, was also a Sparkles cheerleader through all four years of high school.
“The program’s mentors are what keeps the program thriving,” Donna explains. “The cheer and dance mentors are great during practices and games.”
Each year, the program has improved and gotten more organized Donna says. She anticipates that with active involvement by parents, mentors, and sponsors, the program will continue to grow. One of the team’s biggest highlights is when the Sparkles cheer with the Nebraska Cornhusker cheerleaders at the spring game in April.
“Our daughter enjoyed cheering at the games,” Donna says. “I think future Sparkles will really enjoy their time being involved in football, volleyball, and basketball games, and pep rallies. It’s not about making these few stand out, it’s about just letting them be involved with their high school, and have fun creating and cherishing moments like their peers.”
Kathy McClellan echoed those sentiments.
“I realized Chloe is becoming more independent,” she said. “She doesn’t need me at her side for assurance. She’s come out of her shell. I just can’t begin to tell you what it’s like to see your daughter…the one you had doubts about…on the track with other girls shaking pom-poms at a Westside football game.”
Nervous. Shy. Timid.
Nonetheless, there Chloe stands in her red, white, and blue Sparkles uniform ready to shake her pom-poms and showcase her dance routine.
“Even though they’re all watching,” she says. “It makes me feel special.”
Visit thesparkleeffect.org for more information.
This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.