Every year in February, the application process begins for acceptance to the Sparking Scots cheerleading squad. No one with special needs is turned away.
This squad, adopted by Highland Park High School as part of the varsity cheerleaders in 2013, is for special needs students in ninth through 12th grade.
The girls cheer at one game a week during football season and one basketball game per week after football season ends. You can also catch them at pep rallies getting students excited about the upcoming game.
Each Sparkling Scot is paired with a mentor sister who has gone through an interview process.
Mary-Kyle McDonald, a speech pathologist at the high school, volunteers as a sponsor for the squad. After watching the girls perform, she decided to become involved.
“I have never witnessed an organization in school that spoke to me in that way,” she said.
“I would love to see programs like this at every high school.” – Mary-Kyle McDonald
The Sparkling Scots are a branch of the Sparkle Effect, a nonprofit created in 2008 to provide those with special needs a way to feel accepted, gain confidence, and be included in things that traditional high schoolers experience.
What began with just one school in Bettendorf, Iowa, has now expanded to 220 teams in 31 states according to Sparkle Effect’s website. The squads contain both students with and without disabilities. The three main goals of the Sparkle Effect are inclusivity, intensity, and immersion.
All girls involved in the program are treated as equals. There is a weekly practice requirement, and they participate in their school’s sports for both fall and winter seasons
Margaret Chambless, a senior and the current captain of the Sparkling Scots, discovered her passion for working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities early on.
“I like that I can connect on a special level,” Chambless said. “I want to be an advocate for these special people.”
In previous years, before the creation of the Sparkle Effect, students with disabilities were often separated from their peers and did activities with others that were like themselves, organizers said. By including mentors who are students themselves, the Sparkle Effect has efficiently created an environment that makes those with disabilities feel included.
Not only does the program make those with disabilities feel included by having them perform at highly trafficked events, it allows the girls to dress the part as well. Sparkle Effect provides all the uniforms, so the girls will not only feel good, they look good too. Thanks to a uniform grant, none of the ladies have to pay out of pocket to be properly outfitted in the traditional cheerleading uniform.
“I would love to see programs like this at every high school,” McDonald said. “It creates a culture that values diversity and kindness.”