“Mac!” calls Kaitlyn Rogers. “You did a good job today,” the Mount Si freshman tells her cheer teammate.
Mac responds with a smile, and a thumbs’ up sign.
As she speaks, Rogers is also communicating with the gestures of American Sign Language. Her sign language textbook sits on the table nearby.
“I’m a visual learner,” says Rogers. Mac, 16, has global development delay, and doesn’t speak. “If he can see a connection with hand motions and what I’m saying, it’ll better connect, and get the point across.”
There is learning happening for everybody in this room. Today, just like every Tuesday evening, is cheer practice for Mount Si’s Sparkle Effect team. Newly formed at the start of this school year, Sparkle Effect mixes young people with developmental disabilities with typical cheerleaders. Except, the case could be made that nobody’s typical in this room, and that some exceptional things are happening.
Take Rogers. She wasn’t asked to learn sign language.
“I’m doing it because I love to learn,” she said. She sees the benefits in learning to work with other people who aren’t exactly like her.
What is Sparkle?
Snoqualmie resident Marci Nicholson is the advisor for this new program, sharing coaching duties with her sister, Mount Si head cheer coach Jessii Stevens.
“We are a family who loves cheerleading,” says coach Nicholson. Pom-poms and human pyramids run in the family, and Nicholson’s own daughter has cheered since she was a tot.
“We just believe, a lot, in the value of cheerleading,” she says. As she sees it, not every girl goes out for soccer or basketball, but any girl can have the desire to belong.
“Cheer can totally have an impact,” she added. “When our seniors graduate, they talk about how their life is different because of cheerleading. What would they be doing if they didn’t have cheer? This is a calling for them.”
For several years, Nicholson and Stevens have noticed teams of cheerleaders made up of teens with special needs, doing exhibitions at the various regional competitions that Mount Si attends.
If other schools can do it, why not Mount Si, thought Nicholson. She introduced the Sparkle Effect, a national, student-run program which mixes typically developing cheerleaders with teens with special needs. To get it started, a group of Mount Si cheerleaders volunteered to be leaders, making a yearlong commitment and signing a contract to stick with the program.
They attend practices every Tuesday, after their regular cheer practice, at the Freshman Campus, teaching the routines. It’s a lot of extra work, and everyone has a role. Mount Si’s Sparkle Effect team attends games, as well.
Just four teens from the community, Mac Davis, Eve Clemens, Silas Palmisano and Serena Thorpe, took part this year. Nicholson wants this number to grow, until it’s a one-to-one basis for every cheerleader.
Eve Clemens smiles as she is lifted into the air by Avery Dahline, Amanda Antoch and Hailey Weed.
Learning her routine for the upcoming cheer season, Clemens is getting the full cheerleader experience as a flyer, a team member who goes airborne in the team’s competitive stunts.
Born with Down’s Syndrome, Eve is 19, short and quiet, but Sparkle is where she shines. She shows in ways other than words.
“When I say, ‘Get ready for Sparkle,’ it’s not like school, where I have to fight to get her out the door,” says Eve’s mom, Suzanne Clemens of Fall City. “She does get ready!”
Eve loves these girls, and while she wouldn’t show off these routines for mom, she knows them and does them for her Sparkle teammates. It allows her to show a different side of herself. And that’s part of what this is all about.
Clemens is impressed by how the girls make time to do this.
“They’ve got hours of homework,” she said. “To take time to do this, after their own practice, is huge,” Clemens said. “It’s not lost on me.”
“They’re all just beautiful,” she added.
In the next few months, this team will take part in several Sparkle Effect contests and will give an opening performance at the state cheer competition.
“Silas, are you excited to perform at state?” asked one cheerleader. “I’m performing at state?” he replied. “Yeah, I’m excited.”
Along with routines, this group has built trust.
“It was hard to get Eve to learn to stunt,” said Joann Richter. “But now, she’s almost moving up to preps. She’s really enjoying herself.”
The cheerleaders have discovered that there’s much more to their new partners than just differences.
They’ve learned that Mac has programmed jokes onto the computer device that speaks for him. Silas, too, is outgoing, and plays a lot of jokes. Eve loves sharing hugs. And “Serena is the sweetest,” said Antoch, “always so excited. Watching Serena at a football game, she was so happy—I cried.”
Cheerleader Erin Antoch has a senior culminating project due tomorrow. Yet, after finishing regular cheer practice, she’s here to work on routines with her Sparkle Effect teammates.
“It’s hard to manage time, but I’m ready,” she said. Antoch and the others girls do this for the experience, which they see as valuable “for now, and the world and greater things.”
The cheerleaders have noticed how their Sparkle partners rarely complain.
“They work harder than 90 percent of the athletes I know,” said Joann Richter.
“When I come to cheer practice, there are girls who do not want to be there,” said Antoch. “When you come to Sparkle, every kid is ready to go. Even though it’s late, it’s the end of the day, it makes you feel so much better.”
“It’s cool to see how much confidence they get,” said cheerleader Sophia Caputo. “At the first parade, Eve was scared to walk with us. Now, she’s out there, every day.”
“They learn from us, but at the same time, we learn how to be better people,” summed up Caputo.
• You can learn more about the Sparkle Effect program at thesparkleeffect.org.
In the Sparkle Effect, teens with development differences learn, dance and perform stunts alongside committed members of the Mount Si cheer squad. They will build powerful bonds over the course of a year.
Silas Palmisano flexes his muscles with Erin Antoch, doing a practice stunt in December.
Silas is embraced by Joann Richter following the Wildcats homecoming routine in October.
Cheerleaders including Lyric Lewis, Erin Antoch, Kaitlyn Rogers, Avery Dahline and Amanda Antoch gather with Sparkle teammate Serena Thorpe.
The Sparkle Effect team leaves the field following the homecoming game.
Mac Davis helps as the base of a human pyramid. He doesn’t speak, but communicates in other ways, including signs, with the cheerleaders. Also pictured are Hailey Weed, Natalie Holmes and Kate Krivanek.
Kate Krivanek and Eve Clemens