- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

HANCEVILLE, Ala. (AP) - Even as Trinity’s East Lawrence High trailed by double digits and the fate of its girls basketball game with Deshler was already decided in the Northwest Regional Tournament, cheerleader Savannah Newman continued to smile.

“No matter if we’re winning or losing, she always has a smile on her face, which is a reminder of what high school sports is all about,” said senior cheerleader Whitney Adams.

East Lawrence is one of three high schools in the state with a cheerleading squad for special- needs students. They’re called the “Spirit Sparkles,” and they’re the only special-needs squad in the Decatur area that cheers with the varsity squad at athletic events.

The Sparkles have five members, but only Newman and Magan Stuart cheered at basketball games this season.

Sarah Cronk and Sarah Herr, two former cheerleaders from Pleasant Valley High in Bettendort, Iowa, originated the idea of including special-needs students on cheerleading teams in 2009 when they founded The Sparkle Effect, a non-profit organization.

They formed their own special- needs team in their community, which included students with autism and Down syndrome.

For years, East Lawrence teacher Leah Hembree and her daughter, Alex Pool, had seen special needs squads at competitions and wanted to start one in Lawrence County. Pool is a 2009 East Lawrence High graduate and former cheerleader.

“I guess I didn’t have the courage,” Hembree said.

But, she said, “God intervened” when she was online one day and a website about cheerleading squads with special needs “popped up.” Hembree said she could no longer make excuses because everything fell into place, including a $1,000 grant to purchase uniforms.

She started the squad five years ago, and 10 to 12 special needs students have participated. Newman, 13, who has Down syndrome, joined the team four years ago.

“I like it, and it makes me feel special,” she said as the cheerleaders prepared to lead the team onto the floor at Tom Drake Coliseum.

Newman’s mother, Michelle, said being able to cheer with her peers has changed her daughter.

“She loves it, and she looks forward to it,” Michelle Newman said. “She’s always been outgoing, but being around the other girls makes her feel even more special.”

Kasie Hill is sponsor of the varsity team, and she didn’t hesitate when Hembree made the request for special needs students to participate during games.

“Those girls raised our spirit level more than anybody else,” Hill said. “We consider them part of our varsity squad.”

During the county tournament in January, Newman and Stuart performed at halftime of the varsity games. Everybody cheered and some cried as the duo did the “Nae Nae Dance.”

“It was a special time for them,” said Katie Beth Turner, a former East Lawrence cheerleader who helps Hembree with the Spirit Sparkles.

Michelle Newman said there’s a message special needs children get when they are around students who don’t have physical or mental challenges.

“It lets them know they can do anything,” she said. “Unless you have a special needs child, you don’t know how important that is.”

The five members of East Lawrence High’s Spirit Sparkles are Savannah Newman, Magan Stuart, Mollie McAbee, Selena Osborn and Andreanna Owens.

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, https://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml


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