Posted: Monday, February 4, 2013 -- 11:04 a.m.
UW-Platteville is known as an engineering school but lately, their cheerleading squad has been getting all the attention. It's all thanks to the “Sparkle Effect.”
It's a program that started in Iowa in 2008. A UWP freshman cheerleader brought the Sparkle Effect to it to Platteville this year. And after a push to get area kids involved, the program is now flourishing and changing lives one game at at time.
Maybe it's in their eyes.
“So amazing, it really is,”
Maybe it's their smile.
“Look at that smile, how can you not love this guy?!”
Whatever it is...
“It's great, it's great to see all these kids smile,”
These cheerleaders sparkle!
“It's a gift, it's a gift there's no other way to say it,”
Patti Mitch is the head coach of the UW- Platteville Cheer and Stunt team. The team has 30 athletes but this year she brought on eight new members called Sparkles.
“They are part of our team, they are collegiate cheerleaders as far as we are concerned,” said Mitch.
The Sparkle Effect is a nationwide program that helps children with disabilities become cheerleaders.
“These kids have the same feelings desires and dreams as other kids and all they want is to be included with everyone else,”
Kim Adams is Devin's mom. She was hesitant at first because Devin is in a wheelchair and doesn't speak much. But Devin couldn't wait to put on the orange and blue.
“I came home and said 'Devin to do you wanna be a cheerleader?' and he had a smile from ear to ear and said yeah!”
She says honestly, he wanted to join the team for one reason: “Number one? Girls haha!” said Kim.
“He's got every girl on this team wrapped around his finger,”added Patti.
“Let's go blue! Let's go blue!”
Lakyn Merfeld is a Sparkle and joined up for a different reason.
“Because I wanted my dream to come true to become a cheerleader,”
She tried out for a team in her hometown of Dubuque, Iowa but she was told she wasn't strong enough to participate.
“That made me sad,”
“I think that everyone at some point in their life has felt like they don't belong to something,” said Patti.
“And (here) they belong. They're not being set apart, they are included in what every other kid they see gets to do,”
There are more than 80 Sparkle teams all across the country but those are at the middle and high school level. At UW-Platteville, this is the first sparkle squad at the collegiate level.
“It's actually really fulfilling,”
Nate Styx is a cheerleader and a mentor for one of the Sparkles. He's never worked with special needs kids before and was nervous at first. But that feeling quickly went away.
“There's really nothing like it,” said Nate. “I can see it in their eyes this is the most fun that they've had. They love every minute of it and that's what makes doing this worth it is seeing the smiles on their faces,”
“Kids with disabilities are just like everyone else, don't be afraid of them,” added Kim.
Mitch says the program has had a profound impact on her life as well.
“The first couple practices I left I was so overwhelmed I was in tears,” she admits. “But now I leave and I'm just smiling. The joy and excitement and pleasure they get out of this and their parents, and I still tear up a little bit because it's amazing,”
This team is special because each and every member sparkles.
“To know them, to meet them is to love them and you meet these kids for 10 minutes you're going to fall in love with everyone of them,”
The Sparkle team members range in age from 11 to 23 and are from all over southwestern Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois.
To learn more about the sparkle effect, including how you can donate and sign up someone you know, visit www.thesparkleeffect.org.