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Photo Submitted by: Becky Lowe
By MELISSA MARTIN Brunswick Post editor

BHS Sparkle Squad affords girls with disabilities a chance to shine like their peers

BRUNSWICK — The Brunswick High School cheerleading squad has long been lighting up the sidelines during Friday night football games. But for the past two years, their shine has turned into more of a sparkle, thanks to the addition of several new student members who couldn’t be more excited to cheer on the Blue Devils.

At the start of the 2014-15 school year, the high school implemented a new cheerleading team, which now includes students with disabilities. The team, known as the BHS Sparkle Cheer Squad, has grown – not just in number, but in self-esteem – over the past year as eight girls with physical and intellectual disabilities have joined forces with 13 girls from the typical varsity and junior varsity cheer squads at BHS to bring even more joy to the spectators in the stands.

Operated under a nationwide program known as the Sparkle Effect, the all-inclusive school cheerleading team has granted students with disabilities the right to participate in what has long been known as a high school rite of passage.

Assistant Coach Becky Lowe said being a part of the Sparkle Squad for the past two years has given her autistic daughter, Katie, a junior, a new lease on high school life both in the classroom and beyond. Not only has Katie been able to participate in the sport she loves, but she has also developed what she hopes will be several lifelong friendships in the process.

“So many girls dream about being a part of their high school cheerleading squad most of their lives. They want to wear that uniform and be accepted by their peers,” she said. “That’s why when these girls get their bows and their cheerleading shoes, it’s 10 times more of a bigger deal than it is for the typical girls.”

Lowe and her daughter, Katie, were instrumental in the formation of the Sparkle Squad during last year’s tryouts. Katie had cheered on the sidelines as a freshman; however, her audition score was not high enough to make the final roster her sophomore year.

At Lowe’s urging, mixed with public outcry from the community, the school district elected to follow other Medina County school districts last fall and implement a Sparkle Squad at the high school. Highland High School was the first county school district to form a Sparkle squad in 2011, while Medina High School, which implemented a program of its own in 2012.

The program, to date, has had an overwhelming reception.

“I love that these girls finally have an opportunity to shine and that the rest of the community can see that this is where they fit in and where they belong,” Lowe said.

Sparkle Squad head coach Cassandra Jaeger, who is a special education teacher at Brunswick High School, echoes those sentiments.

“These girls just exude pure happiness and joy,” Jaeger said. “I love seeing it at the games and even off the field when they are at school and at practice enjoying all the friendships they have made.”

The Sparkle Squad practices for 45 minutes at a time twice a week. During those sessions, the girls from the high school’s typical cheerleading program lead the practices, teaching the girls everything from the chants to the movements they use during the cheers.

“They’ve even learned to do the cheers and motions backwards so that the girls in the Sparkle Squad can mirror them,” Lowe said, noting the program has been instrumental in affording the school’s typical cheerleaders the opportunity to work with students with disabilities. “This has helped break down those stigmas and has allowed the girls to really get to know one another.”

During practices and games, each member of the Sparkle Squad, which includes a student in a wheelchair this year, participates to the best of her abilities.

“Sometimes they can do everything the typical girls can do. Sometimes they can just clap along,” Lowe said. “Whatever they can do is fantastic.”

As for the Sparkle Squad itself, they’ve come to relish the attention.

“It’s great to see them in the spotlight,” Lowe said. “During the Sept. 4, a group of elementary school girls made their way down to the field where they asked the girls for their autographs. They just ate up every minute of that.”

The girls typically cheer during the first half of all home varsity and junior varsity football games and the team also had the opportunity to travel to Highland this season where they joined forces with Highland’s Sparkle Squad. The same is true later this season when they will travel to Medina High School when the Blue Devils take on the Bees.

While the fame has afforded the girls a tremendous ego boost, Lowe said she’s been even more impressed by the relationships the girls have formed amongst themselves.

“At every practice all the girls – both the girls on the typical squad and the Sparkle Squad – walk in hugging each other and they all have inside jokes,” she said. “And now when girls from the Sparkle Squad walk down the halls at the high school, they have lots of friends who acknowledge them and make them feel special. But most of all, they now feel included.”

Jaeger said the squad is looking to cheer at other high school sporting events this year and has even been asked to cheer for the Canton Charge, the feeder team for the Cleveland Cavaliers, in March.

In the years to come, Jaeger said she is looking to expand the Sparkle Squad to the middle school level as well.

“Once we can figure out how to make it happen, we will,” she said.

Until then, Jaeger said, she plans to watch her team shine.

“Every time I watch them, I’m overwhelmed with happiness,” she said. “I love seeing them at their best and I know the community enjoys them just as much.”