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Sparkles Squad provides inclusivity and community through cheerleading and dance

Members+of+Sparkles+Squad+at+practice+on+Nov.+12%2C+2023.+
Madi Bierl
Members of Sparkles Squad at practice on Nov. 12, 2023.

Under the fluorescent lights of the State Gym, glitter pom poms shake in the air. A squad of cheerleaders learn a new set of choreography for their upcoming performance at Iowa State’s homecoming pep rally.

Sparkles Squad is an inclusive cheer team made up of Iowa State students and members of the Ames and Des Moines community who have intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities. The group is part of a national organization which has various squads across the country and is one of the biggest nationally, with around 43 active members.

Sparkles Squad performs at various events, including basketball games, wrestling meets and spirit walks. Maya Knudsen, a senior studying human development and family studies and president of Sparkles Squad at Iowa State, said spirit walks are a hit every time.

Knudsen said the purpose behind Sparkles Squad is to spread inclusion. The program offers a safe place for members to be where they can be themselves and make friends.

According to Knudsen, one of the most important things Sparkles Squad does to create an inclusive environment is using first-person language.

“We don’t say autistic person, we say a person with autism so we’re not talking down on anyone,” Knudsen said. “I really like just having those boundaries.”

Sparkles Squad member Ingrid Skoog, a senior at Iowa State studying human development and family studies and a long-time friend of the Knudsen family, said she finds comfort in the language the squad uses because it puts the person before the disability.

“It provides a space for people who may not have the opportunity to do this otherwise,” Skoog said. “It really takes away the stigma around disability and kind of draws more attention to the individual themselves.”

Sparkles Squad has members from various backgrounds and demographics, with members in their 20s to the oldest member in her 60s.

One of its members, Courtney Campbell, is 29 years old and has Williams Syndrome, a developmental condition that impacts several bodily areas. Mild to moderate intellectual or learning difficulties, distinct facial features and heart and blood vessel abnormalities are hallmarks of Williams Syndrome.

Knudsen said when she first met Campbell, she was more timid and did not want to be placed in front for performances.

“Now she’s always in the front of her performances and loves doing stunts,” Knudsen said. “She wants to be involved in any way she can.”

Skoog also expressed her appreciation for Campbell and the energy she brings to the group.

“[Campbell] is just about the funniest girl I’ve ever met. She is so sweet,” Skoog said. “She’s always super happy to see everyone and I think she’s a great representation of what sparkles can be for someone. She never fails to put a smile on anyone’s face, so she’s very special for that.”

Campbell said her favorite song to perform in the Juicy Wiggle and her favorite part about Sparkles Squad is hanging out with the girls.

“I love them because they help me calm down,” Campbell said. “They’re lots of fun. They make me smile, they make me laugh.”

Though the group is connected to Iowa State and performs at university events, several members are not students and live together in a group home, including Campbell.

“This is something that they can be independent on, and come without their staff or anyone,” Skoog said.

Practice

The group practices every Sunday at 4 p.m. at State Gym. During practice, members learn choreography and work through routines as a team.

“For a lot of girls, they can come into practice in not such a great mood, and then you get paired with your partner and you talk through it and like you just meet each other at the same level and then work up from there,” Skoog said.

Lillian Becker, a senior in supply chain management international business, has been in Sparkles for three years.

“There’s just so much joy in the room and everyone really supports each other, you just kind of come how you are,” Becker said.

Becker said members often speak highly of Sparkles to those around them and that the organization has a waitlist.

Maya Knudsen started her own Sparkles Squad when she attended Valley High School in West Des Moines after being asked by her sister Sadie’s special education teacher. The team started with around eight girls, and by the time Knudsen graduated high school, they were up to approximately 18 members.

“I just really wanted to continue being on an inclusive team and make friends,” Maya Knudsen said.

Members of Sparkles Squad, including Sadie Knudsen (front right), at practice on Nov. 12, 2023.

Family ties

Being part of a group as inclusive as Sparkles Squad was important to Maya Knudsen, as her 23-year-old sister Sadie has autism. Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts social interaction, communication and behavior. It is a spectrum disorder, which means the symptoms and traits can vary widely from person to person.

Maya Knudsen said Sadie Knudsen inspires her to advocate and speak up for other people with disabilities since not everyone can express how they want to be included.

Growing up with Sadie Knudsen, Maya Knudsen said, felt different from her peers, but she didn’t know Sadie Knudsen was any different than anyone else.

Chris Knudsen, the father of Maya and Sadie, said Sadie was a happy and loving child and did not see herself as someone with a disability.

“As a kid, I think that’s a great thing because she just just saw herself as just anybody else,” Chris Knudsen said.

Chris Knudsen described raising Sadie as a “tough but rewarding experience.” He said that right when she was born, Sadie was in the intensive care unit and was diagnosed with autism around the age of three.

“Parenting a child with a disability is much more difficult, because you have to adapt your parenting style to accommodate your child’s disability,” Chris Knudsen said.

Maya Knudsen said she is also thankful for Sadie Knudsen, and that she has taught her a lot about patience and how to problem solve in different ways.

Sadie Knudsen said she struggled with things like getting dressed and following a routine, with her father adding that everyday things like hygiene, buttoning buttons or zipping zippers were difficult for her.

Sparkles has helped Sadie Knudsen gain more confidence and her own voice, she said, which made her more sure of herself.

Chris Knudsen said, while there are many things Sadie will always struggle with and have to adapt to her own lifestyle, her family has been able to see Sadie grow through her involvement with Sparkles Squad.

“Sparkles Squad has been tremendous on Sadie because it gives her a great sense of purpose,” Chris Knudsen said. “It gives her a built in ability to make friends and meet people that she normally wouldn’t meet.”

Maya Knudsen said that a common misconception about autism is that people with autism do not have empathy or feel bad for others. However, Maya Knudsen said that Sadie is one of the most compassionate people she knows and is always looking out for others to make sure they are okay.

“Even in high school, she would cheer for her team, and when Maya started the Sparkles Squad in high school, it was really great because it gave Sadie an opportunity to be able to cheer and get closer to the team and be excited and cheer for them, and be able to be a part of everything like everybody else was,” Chris Knudsen said.

Sadie Knudsen said her favorite part of Sparkles is going to homecoming parades, as well as the theme days, which have included Jersey day, PJ day and Barbie day. In three words, she described the Sparkles as “generous, kind and fun.”

Skoog said Sparkles is the most meaningful thing she has done in college, and Maya Knudsen has been her best friend since seventh grade.

“For Maya, her kind heart shows through in so many ways,” Skoog said. “Sparkles is just one representation of that.”

Skoog said with the growing popularity of Sparkles Squad on campus, the organization sends a positive message about inclusivity, as well as pushes down the ableism that exists.

“Everybody feels different or excluded in some capacity at some point, and that’s okay,” Chris Knudsen said. “I think it’s gonna be a difficult thing at times, but you have to reach out and you have to find your tribe, find your people.”

Chris Knudsen said Sparkles Squad has had a tremendous impact on his daughters.

“Just because you have a disability, or not, everybody should be treated the same, with the same amount of love and dignity that everyone deserves,” Knudsen said.

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  • B

    Beth Miller | Dec 8, 2023 at 1:31 pm

    Sparkles has really helped my daughter become more social and find her voice. She looks forward to practice, events and being in the space of other Sparkles. The program has evolved so nicely over the years. The gals from campus are truly exceptional. thank you all for your care and love.

    Reply
  • M

    Mary Kincart | Dec 5, 2023 at 12:52 pm

    So very proud of all of you and all you do for each other. It is hard to explain to people how special this group is for all members. Seeing the growth of both groups has been tremendously rewarding for our family to see. You put a lot of SPARKLE into our lives. Mary Kincart

    Reply