The Springfield Sparkles, a special needs cheer team, has allowed students in the district to find their voice, build friendships and cheer on their Spartans every single week.
Covered in sweat and grass stains, the Springfield High School football team sprints across field. As competition invades the atmosphere, there stands a group of eight passionate boys and girls, cheering on their Spartans. The children's voices echo through the stadium as they tackle their own challenges of living with a disability. With cheerful smiles and radiating hearts, their larger-than-life spirit illuminates fields brighter than any stadium light.
They are the Springfield Sparkle team and their souls are limitless.
Terry Kyser, who serves as the Sparkles' coach, founded the team in the fall of 2010.
After taking the Spartan cheerleaders to the UCA (Universal Cheerleading Association) cheer camp in the summer of 2010, Kyser noticed a picture of a cheerleader with a disability and an article with information about something called "The Sparkle Effect."
"(The Sparkle Effect) is a student-run program empowering students nationwide to include students with disabilities in school based cheer and dance programs," Kyser said. "Being a high school cheerleading coach, working as a pediatric occupational therapy assistant and working with children with disabilities, I knew that this was something that I wanted to do, without a doubt."
After proposing the idea to the high school administrators, the team was created with their support. Ever since, it has helped the members of the team tremendously with their social issues. Participation with the Sparkle team has helped them break through barriers, make friends, and socialize.
"People at school know me and say 'Hi, Lindsay' in the hallways sometimes," Sparkle team member Lindsay Green said.
According to Lindsay's mother, Jessica Green, before Lindsay joined the Sparkle team she "felt like she didn't have any friends." Today, Jessica Green said, Lindsay "finds herself belonging in a good way."
Participation with the Sparkles helped Lindsay establish an identity. Her peers no longer recognize her "just because of her crutches," Jessica Green said. "(They see her as) part of a team, (and this) creates an environment for people to get to know her as an individual."
One of Kyser's favorite stories surrounds a Mikayla Kurylo.
When Kurylo started with the Sparkles, she was shy. She'd often sit with her head down, occasionally waving spirit fingers or going through a few motions.
Suddenly, at one performance, all of that changed.
"(Mikayla) ran onto the floor and performed the routine in its entirety," Kyser said. "We never underestimate what our Sparkle Cheerleaders can do."
The Springfield varsity cheerleaders help the Sparkle team prepare routines and chants.
The varsity cheerleaders know how important the Sparkle team is to the boys and girls who participate.
"It means a lot more than people think," varsity cheerleader Olivia Kenney said. She pointed to Sparkle member Griffin Strickler who once confided that his favorite part about school was going to the football games.
According to Kyser, during the last football game, Griffin wore the Spartan mascot and, because he enjoyed it so much, he was chosen to wear the costume moving forward.
For many on the Sparkle team, relationships with the varsity cheerleaders are just as important as cheering. That was illustrated during a blissful moment when Lily Keener ran and jumped into Kenney's arms, exchanging a long hug.
Mellissa McMillin, mother of Sparkle member Madison McMillin, admits she wouldn't be surprised to see her daughter do the same thing.
"(Madison's) favorite thing about cheerleading," Mellissa McMillin said, "is the cheerleaders."
To help encourage the Sparkle team, after every Tuesday practice, team members are allowed to pick a toy from a bucket. The children love choosing a toy to keep. The toy bucket means so much to Sparkle member Jenna Holmes that she couldn't help but share the joy with her brother, Michael Holmes, a junior lineman for the Springfield football team.
"(Can I) get one for Michael?" she asked shyly as she chose a toy for herself.
Participating with the Sparkles connects Jenna to her brother in a very special way. Admittedly, Jenna's favorite part about being a Sparkle is "cheering for (her) brother."
Not only do the coaches, mentors and parents help the sparkle cheerleaders, but the community is very supportive. Karen Ricci, mother of Sparkle team member Joey Ricci has felt the love and support from the Springfield community.
"Anytime a community opens their arms to our 'special' children reminds me of how blessed we are to live in Springfield,'" Karen Ricci said.
Kyser, meanwhile, continues to work with surrounding communities, encouraging them to create inclusive programming that allows children with special needs to be a stronger part of the school community.
The Springfield Sparkle team cheers at every home varsity and junior varsity football and basketball game. The Sparkles also participate in the Great Lakes Cheer Competition, the Children's Cheer Classic Competition, the Norton PTC Annual Cheer Competition, the 2013 Autism Walk/run and the 2013 Mitochondrial Walk/Run.