The Face of a Movement

November 13, 2012

Edward Weinman

Cosmetic giant L'Oréal names Whitman student a “Woman of Worth Honoree” for 2012.

She was profiled in the celebrity magazine People as a 16-year old.

cronk
Sarah Cronk ’15

Sarah Cronk ’15, the former cheerleader from the small town of Bettendorf, Iowa, who as a teenager started the non-profit The Sparkle Effect – a student-run organization which helps cheerleading and dance teams to include students with disabilities – then found herself on Oprah, MTV and VH1.

“At my local grocery store they opened up all the People magazines so the page my article was on was showing rather than the cover. That was surreal,” Cronk said.

“But the first time I saw Harpo Studios” – the company that produced The Oprah Winfrey Show – “on my caller ID I was freaking out.”

Her moment to freak out didn’t last long because, before Cronk knew it, she was meeting celebrities such as Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and, of course, Oprah.

“Oprah is the nicest person I’ve ever met. She’s amazing, but incredibly down to earth and self-deprecating.”

Cronk started The Sparkle Effect by combining her passion for cheerleading with a desire to improve the quality of life for her brother, who struggled to fit in at high school because of his autism. The Sparkle Effect helps high school cheerleading squads become more inclusive by adding students with disabilities to their rosters.

Since its inception, The Sparkle Effect has caught fire. Cronk started in 2008 with two cheerleading teams that included students with disabilities, but she has since transformed her organization into a national movement that now has more than 79 teams across the country.

sparkle

“I missed four months of my junior year of high school traveling for conferences and media events while building The Sparkle Effect,” Cronk said, joking that she became very good at doing homework on airplanes.

“I sacrificed some of my normal high school experiences for the nonprofit, but it was cool to be the face of a new movement.”

While still in high school, Cronk won a $100,000 grant from Do Something, a program that honors young people’s commitment to social change. Cronk hasn’t slowed down now that she’s majoring in English at Whitman. She continues to run the organization as president and creative director. In fact, the cosmetic giant L’Oréal Paris recently recognized Cronk for her extraordinary efforts serving her community, naming her a “Woman of Worth Honoree” for 2012, along with donating $10,000 to The Sparkle Effect.

Through Nov. 21, anyone can read the stories of the 10 honorees and vote on who will be named the "National Woman of Worth." L'Oréal will donate an additional $25,000 to the winner's nonprofit.

Cronk always knew she was coming to Whitman. As a first-year high school student, she began researching colleges in the Princeton Review and was immediately drawn to Whitman because of its "small student body."

"When I initially saw Whitman students described as "cool nerds" in the Princeton review I was hooked," Cronk said. 

"Whitman has exceeded my already high expectations. Students here are so passionate about their studies and other campus activities, and there's a real sense of community here."

Cronk is quick to laugh at herself. Her voicemail tells callers that they’ve reached “Sarah Cronk of The Sparkle Effect,” and she quips that when her friends see her on campus they poke fun at her by greeting her with, “Hey, Sarah Cronk of the Sparkle Effect.”

She also mocks some of the sound bites she came up with in order to deal with all the media attention she has received since starting her nonprofit.

“It’s cool to care. That was my first sound bite,” Cronk says, rolling her eyes as if thankful that cliché has been retired. “But I love to tell people that ‘The Sparkle Effect isn’t about perfection it’s about connection,’ as well as ‘When everyone cheers everyone wins.’”

cheer

While Cronk might dismiss some of her sound bites, she learned from her older brother that when students with disabilities make connections at school their lives change. She witnessed how her brother’s life improved thanks to a popular member of the high school swim team who, after noticing Cronk’s brother sitting alone at lunch, invited him to sit at the swimmers’ table.

“My brother was turned away from lunch table after lunch table and often ended up eating alone in the nurse’s office. He was depressed because he couldn’t fit in. Then one day a popular kid took my brother under his wing and asked him to join the swim team. This changed my brother’s life. He ended up graduating with more Facebook friends than I did.

“I saw what a difference that small action made, so I wanted to do something with my cheerleading team. That’s where the idea of The Sparkle Effect came from.”

Cronk is hopeful that her work with The Sparkle Effect will earn her the “National Woman of Worth” award, because she wants to use the money to help fund a documentary about her nonprofit. The award, Cronk says, will also fund two internships at her organization. Cronk, who last summer hired a Whitman student for a summer internship, plans to hire two Whitman students to work on the documentary if the project goes forward.

"Whitman students are hard-working, creative, fun to be around, and incredibly humble and low-key about their talents. Those are the kind of people I want to surround myself with in a work environment," she said.

Cronk has a good chance of becoming the youngest woman to ever win the L'Oréal award because The Sparkle Effect continues to produce positive results in high schools across the country. Where the organization has taken root, kids with disabilities are thriving rather than being ignored and reports of bullying are decreasing.

Due to this success, Cronk is beginning to reach out to universities to help integrate college rosters. Boise State and The University of Wisconsin at Platteville are two universities currently developing inclusive cheerleading and dance teams.

“It’s not a difficult cause to support,” Cronk said. “All it means is be kind to someone who is different from you.”

—By Edward Weinman