When Jordyn Zimmerman first came to Ohio University as a freshman, she saw a range of diverse groups of students. But something was missing.
Despite OU being a diverse campus, she noticed most people stuck to their specific groups, which created a less inclusive atmosphere, particularly for those with disabilities. So she decided to bring a new, inclusive group to Athens and created OU Sparkles in fall 2016.
The Sparkle Effect is a national nonprofit organization that helps students start inclusive middle school, high school and collegiate cheer teams for students with and without disabilities. Zimmerman, a sophomore studying special education who is the president of OU Sparkles, was a member of a Sparkles team in high school and was inspired to create OU Sparkles as a way to make both the university and Athens more inclusive.
“It’s different because we aren’t about perfection,” she said. “We are truly about the connection piece and what we can do to create a sense of belonging within each other.”
The team began practicing that spring and since then, it has performed at OU basketball and hockey games as well as the 2017 Homecoming parade. The group practices each weekend in a classroom in McCracken Hall, carefully going over the moves and words of new cheers and taking high-five breaks as necessary.
“When we have Sparkle events or practices, it’s the highlight of my week,” Zimmerman said. “And I think I speak for the team when I say it’s the highlight of many team members’ weeks, too.”
The team now has 11 total members, eight of which are OU students and three who are from the Athens area. This year, the team received its official Sparkle Effect training and became the seventh collegiate team in the country.
Mileena Cook, a senior studying special education, said she got involved in OU Sparkles when another member introduced it to her last year. Her background in cheerleading and gymnastics, along with her major, made the decision to join easy.
“I just thought it would be a perfect fit for me,” she said. “My favorite part is definitely just seeing the girls and how excited they get about everything.”
Kelsey Tetmeyer, a junior studying special education who is the fundraising chair for OU Sparkles, was also a cheerleader in high school and saw OU Sparkles as a way to educate those in the area about people with disabilities’ role in society.
“There’s really a big … lack of recognition of people with disabilities,” Tetmeyer said. “So by having inclusion sports, it really shows that there’s really not that much difference between somebody who has a disability and somebody without.”
When the team practices or performs, Tetmeyer said, there is nothing distinguishing them from each other. They work together to show their Bobcat pride and serve as an example of how people with and without disabilities are very much the same.
“We’re all very much equals and I think … sometimes a university needs a model for that to show that we’re all pretty much the same when it comes down to it,” she said. “We all have the same Bobcat spirit. We all have the same pride for our school. By having somebody model that, I think people can really see how big of an effect it can have.”