Sunday afternoons in McCracken Hall are not the first place one would think to find school spirit, but the beige walls ring with cheers.
“Keep it up! Keep it up! Keep that Bobcat spirit up!”
In a classroom, desks and chairs pushed to the side, Ohio University’s most inclusive cheerleading team, Sparkles, prepares for their next game. The team cheers, chants and waves pom poms in OU green and white like any other OU pep team, but Sparkles places a special emphasis on ensuring anyone who wants to cheer can.
“It’s an inclusive cheer team that is intended to elevate the opportunities for and conversations around inclusion on our campus,” Jen Newton, an associate professor of special education and the faculty advisor for Sparkles, said. “Our goal is to be everywhere everyone else on campus is.”
The team welcomes all cheerleaders, regardless of ability. To try out for the team, which one can do each spring, there is a round of interviews. Sparkles is not looking for the best back handspring, but rather a commitment to productive inclusivity and a passion for cheering on the Bobcats.
“I wish people knew how much passion that all of us have not only for cheerleading, but for inclusion and for each other,” said Lindsay Schaeffer, a senior studying special education and a Sparkles teammate.
Sparkles was founded at OU in 2016 by Jordyn Zimmerman. Zimmerman is autistic and non-speaking, which helped inspire her to create the team during her time as an undergraduate. She communicates via Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC, on an iPad, but for the first 18 years of her life, she faced a significant lack of support from her educational system. When she was finally equipped with AAC, she became an advocate for other students. Zimmerman graduated from OU with a degree in education policy and received her master’s of education at Boston College.
Following Zimmerman’s lead, Newton said, Sparkles has always been participant-led. Newton joked her job is mainly to carry the group’s pom poms and jackets, stepping aside to let the teammates lead.
This is not to say Newton does not know the teammates. Within minutes of walking into a practice, there is a clear sense of camaraderie among everyone in the room. Newton asks the teammates about their days, recalling specifics like the new pants someone got for Christmas or where another girl’s parents are working now. This familiarity is reflected between teammates too, with participants frequently catching up and embracing a nurturing environment.
“They’re supporting each other and making sure everybody can participate and everyone can join,” Newton said. “They’re great.”
Sparkles at OU is a part of a larger organization, Generation Spirit, which has set up branches of Sparkles across the country, mainly at high schools. Newton said the team differs here, however, as many times other Sparkles teams prioritize a peer mentoring system, which can often evolve into saviorism or inspiration porn, a form of ableism referring to the portrayal of people with disabilities as being inspirational to able-bodied people because of their life circumstances.
Riley Rupert, a freshman studying business entrepreneurship, joined Sparkles at OU this year after participating in her high school’s team for years. She said her high school team was larger and focused more heavily on partner-based activities, with people without disabilities paired with people with them.
“Here we're all just kind of one, which I prefer a lot better,” Rupert said.
Rupert said there can be a lot of misunderstanding regarding Sparkles and wished people understood that teammates participate in order to have fun and cheer with peers, not as some form of volunteer work.
“Every time I tell someone I'm doing this, especially in college, they’re like, ‘Oh, good for you, how good that you’re doing that,’” Rupert said. “But it’s because I want to, it’s not because it’s like a job. We’re a team.”
Another aspect of Sparkles that differs from many other organizations is that it brings together both OU students and local community members. Brooklyn Dikis is a community member who has been a part of Sparkles for around five years.
“We have fun, and it’s part of the team,” Dikis said. “There’s not really much for disabilities, people, inclusion … it’s just being part of a team. It’s fun.”
Sparkles has participated in another of new experiences this year, such as cheering at a football game for the first time. Newton said she wishes people would extend the same opportunities to cheer on the Bobcats as with other groups, but added she is grateful for the number of new experiences this year. She attributes much of this season’s success to the relentlessness of Sparkles’ president, Abby Ernst.
“It’s really not that hard to meet people’s needs and allow them the space (they need),” Newton said. “We went from club sports … to this year, they got to cheer at a football game, which is crazy. It just increases the visibility and the opportunity and getting the word out. It comes because the team is relentless and advocating to be in every space.”
Sydney Andrews, a senior studying fine arts and Sparkles’ secretary, has been a part of Sparkles for five years. She said the team is always open to new members, and encouraged others to join.
Sparkles’ next performance will be this weekend at the Ohio women’s basketball game, 1 p.m. at The Convo. Andrews said she is excited for the performance, and hopes people can take away a bit more about the message of Sparkles.
“I hope we bring our very best spark,” Andrews said. “I wish people would know about what our mission is: to show them everyone’s equal.”