LIBERTY, Ill. (AP) — Addi Knuffman and Alaina Obert concentrated to get the moves just right.
They clambered on to the knees of Liberty High School cheerleaders, first sitting, then standing, carefully balanced and waving their silver poms wearing big smiles.
The two 5-year-olds, along with 21-year-old Katie Hugenberg, are adding some extra spark to the cheerleading squad thanks to the Sparkle Effect.
The nationwide program, now available in Liberty, promotes and supports cheerleading and dance squads that include students with disabilities, providing positive effects for both schools and communities.
High school sophomore and cheerleader Madison Badgley spearheaded the move to start the program at Liberty this year after hearing about it from a neighbor. Badgley met with the School Board, fine-tuned the idea with High School Principal Karen Carper, sought support from the cheerleaders and the community, developed a registration form, and helped spread the word about the Sparkle Effect.
The work paid off last week with the first practice for the high school students and the Sparkles.
It's been worth it 'just to be able to see the smiles on their faces when they get to do something they wouldn't normally get to do,' Badgley said. 'It's an amazing program. It will be really good for our community to get involved with and good for us cheerleaders to have that experience.'
Not to mention what it means for the Sparkles.
Addi 'loves this kind of stuff. It's really cool for her,' said her dad, Trevor Hull.
Addi has a disease called neurofibromatosis type 1. Tumors on her brain hamper her balance, speech, growth and vision.
But 'she's the happiest, smileyest kid you'll ever meet, so this is right up her alley,' said her mom, Allynn Hull.
Best of all is the opportunity to participate in something like cheerleading.
'My other two kids are involved in so many different sports that I can't imagine her not being involved in something like that, where she can be part of a team,' she said.
Ginger Obert welcomes the chance for her daughter Alaina, who has speech and learning delays, to spend time with the cheerleaders.
'She really looks up to these girls when we go to the game. It's going to be a big thing for her,' Obert said. 'Sometimes I feel like she's left out of a lot of things other kids her age are doing. This kind of puts them in the spotlight for a change.'
The high school squad cheers at junior varsity and varsity basketball games.
The Sparkles 'are just cheering at one game for this first year out,' Madison said, but 'I hope they can cheer for more games' in coming years.
The Friday, Feb. 8, game will draw a big audience ready to watch the squad's newest additions.
Madison applied for and got a $1,000 grant through Varsity Spirit Inc. for uniforms to match the high school squad and poms for the Sparkles.
'No money is coming from the school,' Madison said. 'I plan to seek outside donations for other things we want to do.'
In the meantime, practices focus on the Sparkle girls.
'It's just all about them and not us,' cheer coach Kim Schuette said. 'We're just here being a buddy, trying to help them, teach them motions so they can put it all together with us and perform. The point is for them to shine. It's their time.'
Lauren Delzell, associate director of Sparkle Effect dance teams and associate trainer of dance teams, led the first practice session. She had the girls sitting in a circle and stretching, then learning the words and motions to simple cheers.
'Say G. Say O. The next one is go. One more time, go,' Delzell said. 'You just learned your first cheer.'
They worked on jumps and other skills, and finished up with a game of duck, duck, goose.
'Both sides will learn all about inclusion, how it's mutually beneficial, how they can gain friendship and look beyond the superficial,' Delzell said. 'The girls with the disabilities will learn tremendous things about communication and self-confidence.'
Nationwide, there's more than 80 Sparkle Effect cheer and dance squads, and the number keeps growing.
'Once someone is involved in it or has seen someone involved in it, you see how successful it is and how much it benefits everyone,' Delzell said. 'It benefits the whole community when we see the girls having this much fun and cheering on a community team at the same time.'
High school senior Shelli Ormond said working with the Sparkles shows the cheerleaders that they can influence their community.
'These girls are going to see us in the hallway and say, 'Oh, I want to be like that someday,' ' she said. 'It makes us realize we need to be a positive influence for the rest of the community.'
Badgley also realizes another key from working with the program.
'If you put your mind to something, anything is possible,' she said. 'Things might seem out of reach in the long run may be in reach for what you want.'