High school sports are for millions of students the best part of growing up: The roar of the crowd, the thrill of the competition, the camaraderie and sense of belonging to a team. And there is perhaps no faster-growing team sport in America’s high schools than cheerleading.
Yet many students with special needs have been left on the sideline...until now.
New Berlin Eisenhower High School’s Sparkle Cheerleading squad is the brainchild of Eisenhower senior Hailey Fortier—the captain of the school’s varsity cheerleading team. In June, she approached school officials with an idea: A new team comprised of varsity cheerleaders and students with special needs.
“I think it’s just an amazing opportunity for them,” Hailey said. “A lot of them did dance, so I was like ‘we should have a cheer team for them.’ It’s just something that would get them involved.”
After getting approval from both the school and school district, Hailey got her varsity teammates involved; asking co-captain Gabby Gatto if she would join the new Sparkle team.
“As soon as she said this, I was like ‘I definitely want to help,’” Gabby recalled. “That would be something that I would be more than welcome to be a part of.”
Three other varsity cheerleaders volunteered to coach, and when practice started in October, six Eisenhower students with special needs had signed up, including sophomore Tilly Gillard.
“My favorite part of Sparkle Cheer is when I do tumbling because I get to show off my special skills,” she said. “I like to do handstands and cartwheels and bridges.”
After a few weeks of practice, Tilly and her teammates got to do their tumbling, handstands, cartwheels and bridges in front of the entire school when they began performing at Eisenhower basketball games and pep rallies.
“Everyone loves when they’re there,” Gabby explained. “Everyone’s so welcoming of them. They love being in front of a crowd and I would have never pictured them being able to have this opportunity, and the fact that it’s actually happening is really amazing.”
“It’s been really good,” added Hailey. “A lot of the girls have really excelled in their skills. Like forward rolls; some of the girls couldn’t do them and now they’re doing three or four in a row. It’s been really amazing to see them grow.”
Sparkle cheerleading originated in Bettendorf, Iowa in 2008, when high school student Sarah Cronk created a team of cheerleaders with and without special needs. New Berlin Eisenhower’s squad is one of the first in Wisconsin.
“It’s all about inclusiveness and acceptance and understanding of each other and accepting that there are people on the team with disabilities and without disabilities, but we’re accepting each other for who we are and what we bring to the team as individuals,” said Jody Brill, a former high school and college cheerleading coach who now serves as the Sparkle team’s faculty advisor.
Brill, a special education paraprofessional in the New Berlin School District, has seen firsthand the wonders that the team has done for its members.
“You can just see that they feel confident about themselves,” she said. “They have pride in the fact that they are part of this program.”
Even deeper than that, though, is the connection that the girls have to one another. Victoria Loyo, the team’s captain, considers her teammates her best friends.
“Yes I do,” she said with a giggle.
“To be able to actually be able to be a part of something with her peers, with her friends—and that’s what it is: ‘My friend Hailey, my friend Gabby, my friend Grace.’ The whole team is her friend,” said Victoria’s mother Julie Loyo. “It’s been so important, and it’s been so special, and it’s been so right. It’s just so right.”
“The best part of Sparkle cheer is doing something together as a team,” beamed Tilly.
And now the team will be doing something together that they would have never dreamed of when they first started practicing five months ago: representing the United States at the International Cheer Union’s World Championships.
“My jaw dropped to the ground and I was like ‘Are you serious?’” Hailey remembered thinking when Jody told her the news. The team was selected as America’s entrant in the Special Abilities Unified Division competition at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando from April 25th through the 27th.
“Going to this World Championship, I’m just excited and overwhelmed,” said Tilly.
“We are going for the experience, but also to know that we are showcasing to the world,” added Julie Loyo. “It is not just New Berlin or Wisconsin or the U.S. There will be approximately 80 countries represented, so to focus that unified team and what we’re doing in little old New Berlin to showcase in front of the world on what our girls have done and show that world that this is how it’s supposed to be. We are supposed to be unified.”
Before they can show the world what they can do, though, the team needs help getting to Orlando. Since this is the Sparkle squad’s first year, they don’t have funds to put toward transportation and other travel-related expenses. To help cover them, the team has set up a GoFundMe page.
The trip will be a dream come true for the Sparkle girls, but for Jody Brill, the dream of giving every girl a chance to be a part of a team has already been fulfilled.
“I cry all the time,” she said as she became choked up thinking about how far the team has come. “Just seeing them and seeing the joy being on this team brings them; it’s so heartwarming. I’m always to overwhelmed to see the friendship that has formed, to see the acceptance that is happening in the school—the other students accepting them—it’s just amazing what they’ve done and the community that they’ve built.”
To help the Sparkle Cheerleading team travel to the World Championships, make a donation to their GoFundMe page here or send a check payable to Eisenhower Sparkle Cheer and send them to:
Attn: Jody Brill
Eisenhower High School
4333 S. Sunnyslope Road
New Berlin, WI 53151