Herr, Sarah

Picture of Giraffe Herr, Sarah

It made sense to Sarah Herr, though not to the people around her at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa. A cheerleader herself, Sarah thought that girls with disabilities could be cheerleaders too. Adults and fellow students told her it would never work.

Cheerleading was for the pretty, popular girls like her. The student body wasn't going to accept a cheer team that included girls who were "different." What if the cheerleaders who were to train the new girls refused or lost interest and stopped working with them? That could be devastating to the kids with handicaps. There were legal liabilities to consider. What if a girl with a disability got hurt? And surely their families would never allow them to do this strange thing, especially because it meant their daughters would be in the public eye. The girls themselves wouldn't want to be so visible. It was a sweet, naive idea and it would never work.

Through it all, Sarah just smiled and kept moving, ignoring the possibility that she was risking her own high position in the student body's social structure. The new cheer team came on the field at the first home football game, the six regular members of the squad and ten integrated "Spartan Sparkles," girls with an array of physical and mental handicaps. The Sparkles beamed, the crowd roared their approval, families were thrilled that their girls were so accepted, and all of Pleasant Valley High learned something about its own goodness.

It was only the beginning. Sarah and the girls who have helped her make the Sparkles an ongoing reality have packaged the process they've used and are making it available to other schools online. They provide all the information that's needed to start a similar program, including personal coaching by the unstoppable Sarah Herr.

Update: Sarah Herr's Sparkle Effect has fostered more than 150 teams in 26 states involving more than 3,000 students with and without disabilities. Sarah graduated from Whitman College in 2015 with a degree in psychology. She's president of the Sparkle Effect board, which includes mothers of children with disabilities who are on Sparkle Effect teams. The cheer squads are described as "a loud and public symbol of acceptance, forever changing a school\'s culture to one that values diversity and kindness."