Students sparkle on the court

Everybody on your feet! The UNI Sparkles can't be beat!

Make sure you're in the audience at the McLeod Center when the university's new inclusive cheer squad, the UNI Sparkles, takes to the floor in March during a UNI basketball game.

Sparkle squad
The UNI Sparkles is one of only three college-level inclusive cheerleading squads in the nation.

This squad, which was formed fall semester by LeClaire native Samantha Swanson, includes two boys and nine girls who love to cheer and are avid Panther fans. Oh, and by the way, the cheerleaders have disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to autism.

"We're more alike than we are different," said Swanson, a sophomore elementary education major with a minor in special education who serves as the squad's captain. "The Sparkles send the message that anyone can be a cheerleader or do anything they put their mind to."

Swanson attended Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf and was a four-year member of the PVHS cheerleading squad. The high school also has an inclusive cheerleading squad, which was formed in 2008 by PVHS cheerleaders Sarah Cronk and Sarah Herr. Cronk took the inclusive cheerleading squad concept nationwide by creating a program called the Sparkle Effect. During the past five years, more than 100 student-run Sparkle Effect cheer and dance programs have been started at middle schools, high schools and colleges across the country.

Swanson brought this life-changing program, her passion for working with children with disabilities and her love of cheerleading with her to UNI. The UNI Sparkles is the third college-level squad in the nation. (Swanson's twin sister, Shelby, started the first college Sparkle Effect squad at the University of Wisconsin Platteville; Penn State University has the nation's second collegiate Sparkle Effects squad.)

UNI's inaugural squad ranges in age from 5 to 17. "That age range is flexible because we don't want to turn anyone away," said Swanson. "Participants can come from any school district, and homeschooled children can also take part. They don't have to try out for the squad and there is no cost to participate." Swanson recently received a $2,000 grant from the Sparkle Effect, which will cover the cost of uniforms (purple and gold, of course!) and pom-poms.

The squad practices from 6-6:45 p.m. on Sundays. Practices began mid-December and will continue through the end of the UNI men's and women's basketball seasons.

Each UNI Sparkle has a collegiate student mentor to help them learn cheers, stunts and jumps. A cheerleading or dance background is not required to be a UNI Sparkle mentor. What is required, however, is a caring attitude, a responsible nature, comfort in working with youngsters with disabilities and a one-year commitment to the program.

"Being a Sparkle changes these kids. They come out of their shell," said Swanson. "They have an opportunity to be involved in an activity, just like other students."

To learn more about becoming a UNI Sparkle or mentor for the 2014-15 cheer season, contact Samantha Swanson at 563-370-6821 or smswanson@uni.edu. Learn about the Sparkle Effect at www.thesparkleeffect.org.

Samantha SwansonSparkle Squad
UNI Sparkles was formed fall semester by sophomore and former high school cheerleader Samantha Swanson.
UNI Sparkles
Sparkle SquadSparkle Squad
The UNI Sparkles performed before men's and women's basketball games in February.
UNI Sparkles

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