Karli’s eyes sparkle as she shakes her purple and gold pom poms during the half-time ceremony. Seven-year old Karli is dressed in her cheerleader uniform and is following the lead of a UNI Sparkles cheerleading mentor.
“It’s so cool,” says UNI Sparkles founder, Samantha Swanson. “Honestly, almost every time, it brings a tear to my eyes. It is so great seeing the difference all the mentors make on these kids.”
Founded in 2014, UNI Sparkles is an inclusive cheer team that pairs children with disabilities with UNI students who serve as mentors. The mentees range in age from 7 to 19 years old. The team currently has 24 members and performs at UNI football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball games.
“I was a member of the first-ever inclusive high school cheer team at my high school in Pleasant Valley,” explains Swanson. “We gained national recognition and even appeared on the Oprah Show. Then my teammate started Sparkles Effect to create more inclusive cheer teams around the country, and now there are more than 140 teams nationwide.”
Swanson’s twin sister created a collegiate squad at the University of Wisconsin Platteville and that prompted Swanson to start a squad at the University of Northern Iowa. Swanson says, “I discovered my love for teaching and for working with special education students through inclusive cheer teams.”
One particular mentee holds a special place in Swanson’s heart, “We hung out together outside of the cheer team. It was fun building that relationship. I felt like I really made a difference.”
Swanson is confident that her experience with the inclusive cheer team along with her degree in Elementary Education and minor in Special Education will guide her career as a professional. Swanson says, “Working with the kids and planning for the practices will definitely help me as a teacher.”
Would you like to help more young people gain confidence and learn new skills through the UNI Sparkles program? Participate in the crowdfunding event that is taking place now—give children the opportunity to be part of a team and cheer in front of their biggest fans by visiting https://pawprint.uni.edu/project/1649.