Meet the Arvada West Wildcat Sparkles

What do you do when you have a special education student in high school and they come to you and tell you they want to be a cheerleader? You know that kids with special needs can be very emotional, and telling them no can spiral them down into a depression. At Arvada West High School in Arvada, Colorado, a special education student named Keslie Levad who was in a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy wanted to be a cheerleader. Arvada West has two competition squads, Cheer and Poms, and because the school spirit squads are competition squads, they were not looking for special needs kids. This bummed Keslie out.

Keslie’s best friend, John Braselton, who is a non-special needs student, was just starting his freshman year, and did not want to see Keslie down about not being able to be a cheer leader. Having a best friend like Keslie with special needs, John had read all sorts of information on the subject and remembered reading somewhere about a type of special needs spirit squad. Doing some research he came across the Sparkle Effect (www.sparkleeffect.org) that was starting at another school in the US. He immediately looked into this program and wanted to bring it to Arvada West so his friend could be a cheerleader.

Not being able to just do this on his own, and not knowing exactly where to start, John enlisted the help of his lifetime friend and neighbor, Alex Merkins, who was a senior at Arvada West and a member of the Wildcats Pom squad. He hoped that Alex would be able to help him get the program started and also choreograph the dance pieces for the group.

Once the two of them had researched the program more, they needed to find a coach. The first person John thought of was Candy Erickson. Candy had been working with Keslie since the 7th grade as her 1 on 1 Para Educator. Candy was immediately on board as John and Alex told her about it and she was set on making the program an inclusive school spirit squad for Arvada West High School.

So, John had found a program, found someone to help him get it started and choreograph it, and found a coach. The next step would prove to be the hardest part. They had to talk to the Administration at Arvada West High School to get it approved and up and running. Following the ‘Quick Start Guide’ that they received from the Sparkle Effect website that provided them with the information they needed to give the Administration, as well as tips and suggestions, they met with their schools Activities Director. It was frustrating for them as the school did not seem to want to start this club. However, after multiple meetings the Administration at Arvada West gave them their stamp off approval and they could now really get started. Since this is a school club/activity, and not a sport/cheer group that is part of the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA), they did not need to seek approval from anyone else.

In May of 2011, the small new group began to make announcements to the school asking for students who would be interested in helping students with special needs and their new cheer group, the Wildcat Sparkles, as Peer Coaches. Multiple students applied. The students were required to submit their application, partake in an interview and provide recommendations from teachers. Through this application and interview process, John, Candy and Alex were able to select the students they felt would best fit the program. And finally, they had their team. School was ending, but the Sparkle Effect was just beginning.

In August of 2011, the new team of Peer Coaches held a bonding activity to let the new team get to know each other and come up with ideas for the next school year. As soon as school started Keslie was going to need other team members to join her and the group recruited special needs students Nick, AJ and Darian Ortiz.

At the beginning of each school year, Arvada West holds a Standards Assembly where the Principal, Mr. Robert Bishop, sets the standards the school expects for the entire school year. The gym was full of students and staff members in the gym for this assembly, and Principal Bishop invited the Sparkles out onto the floor to center court to introduce them to everyone in attendance. After being introduced, the Sparkles left the floor and were amazed to see everyone was clapping for them. This amazed the group as they had just been introduced and had not even performed.

It was now time to practice. School had just started, football was going strong, and the next Assembly was for Homecoming 2011. That would be the first performance of the new Arvada West Sparkles. They started practicing a routine that they would perform at the Homecoming Assembly.

Homecoming week came and when the assembly was about ready to start, 1800 students and staff entered the gymnasium. The standard assembly things went on. Cheerleaders performed, football and other fall sports were recognized, and then near the end of the assembly, Mrs. Bashford, who was the MC for the assembly welcomed the Sparkles to the floor. The team took the floor, with 1800 people watching them and then the music started. The song was “Firework” by Katy Perry, and they did their routing. The routine was coming to the end with the group ending up in a circle on the gym floor and all of them screamed “SPARKLES!” and threw confetti up into the air. The Senior class rose to their feet, followed by the Juniors, then the Sophomore class and finally the Freshman. Everyone in the gym was standing and chanting “Sparkles! Sparkles!” It was a great feeling for John, and everyone involved. Very electric. “This was the greatest feeling ever, something you created, made such an impact on so many people.” reflected John.

One of the Sparkle Peer Coaches, and John’s sister Julia Braselton remembers this moment as her best experience. “The reaction of the crowd was incredible and I really liked hearing the student body chanting for the Sparkles.” she recalled during one of their final practices for the 2012/13 season.

The Sparkle group continued and performed at some of the games in the 2011/12 basketball season, and nearing the end of the school year another call was made out to the student body for applications for next years Peer Coaches.

The group was set for the 2012/13 school year and that included the addition of a student from Wheat Ridge High School. Wheat Ridge had a student that wanted to be a part of the Sparkles, and the Sparkles were more than welcoming to a student from their special needs program.

During halftime of a girls basketball game for the 2012/13 season, with a couple hundred Arvada West students in attendance and around 50 or so students from the opposing school, the Sparkles took to the floor, and did a routine. A chant went up from the Arvada West Student section “We love Sparkles! We love Sparkles!”, and what was really cool and amazing, the chant was picked up by the opposing team student fans and parents.

A few weeks later, Arvada West hosted a basketball game against cross town rival Ralston Valley. A lot of the kids at both schools knew each other and the gym was packed. Very close to standing room only. At halftime the Sparkles again took to the floor and performed and again the chant “We love Sparkles!” was echoing through the gym from both the Arvada West and Ralston Valley fans. The Sparkle team was all smiles, and pumped up. Arvada West lost the game, but you could not tell that by looking at the Sparkle team members. Peer Coach Julia said that after the performance was done “a lot of my friends from RV (Ralston Valley) came up to me telling me how cool this was.”. Julia, who was recruited by her brother to apply to be a peer coach for the Sparkles, has been a member of the squad since the start of the program.  Now a sophomore she is very happy with being a member of the squad and plans on continuing her work with the group throughout her high school years. She even feels that this is something that she might like to continue in college. Maybe not special education, but working with kids in someway she feels would be very fulfilling for her.

But it is not just about the Sparkles and performing. Another current Peer Coach, Jadon Tanguma, was pulled into performing at a Sparkle performance and decided to apply to be on the teem as a Peer Coach. Unfortunately, his schedule did not permit him to become part of the team because of conflicts, but he had a free 7th period during the day and spent time in the Challenge Room with the Special Education students, or he would go with one of the students to her ceramics class to help out. During one of these times in the Challenge Room he remembers his best experience. A bunch of the Sparkle team, and other Special Education students were in the room, and they were all just sitting around socializing when they all just started laughing, and laughing so hard. He remembered that moment vividly, and now, during the second semester, his schedule changed and he was able to practice and work more with the team and become a Peer Coach.

What about the Special Education students in the program? Keslie, who is now a junior at Arvada West and was the student who was at the center of getting this program started says that she likes that the Sparkles giver her freedom and lets her show everyone what she can do. This experience has shown her that she can to become a cheerleader, even if the regular cheer squad said no, and she really enjoys the time she gets to spend with friends and has earned respect from the entire student body.

Jeremy Maccarrone, also a junior, loves the fact that the Sparkles lets him dance, and has learned more about being a good friend from his experience.

Darian Ortiz, a senior, loves the dancing. Even confined to a wheelchair, that is all she wants to do. During a recent practice before their final performance, people were standing around and Darian was yelling “Dance now!”. Darian also enjoys the friends that she has made through the Sparkles.

Spencer Veraldi, a sophomore, likes the fact that the Sparkles is something that gets him out to do something and has learned to work with a group. It has also been an excuse to hang out with girls.

AJ Novotny, a senior, likes having fun and meeting new friends through the Sparkles. And AJ is not joking. If you follow AJ to class, on the way to the only elevator in the school, you can not go more than five feet without someone saying “Hi AJ!”. The Sparkles have given AJ a way to show his school spirit.
“AJ reminds us how fortunate we all are, that having a kind soul and not judging others is how we dream of living our lives.” said Mr. Casey Hawk, AJ’s English teacher. When asked if he thought that being a member of the Sparkles has made AJ a better student in class Mr. Hawk responded “That’s hard to say, but I feel it gives AJ more acceptance, pride, and popularity, which is nice and is something he deserves.”

The last member of the group, Chris Reiman, is not a student at Arvada West. He is a junior at Wheat Ridge High School. Joining the Sparkles at Arvada West, he was happy to meet new friends, and likes how being a member has taught him how to interact better with others and being nice to others. And Chris is a good member to end this article talking about. Being the only member not part of Arvada West, and all the performances at Arvada West, most of the kids he interacts with at Wheat Ridge did not get to see him perform for the Sparkles. But on February 15th, 2013, the last performance of the Sparkles for the 2012/13 school year was held at Wheat Ridge High School during halftime of their boy’s varsity basketball game against Alameda International High School. Halftime started, the Sparkles were introduced, and performed their routine finishing with all of them in a line, holding their hands up, cheering loudly “SPARKLES!” and the gym erupted in cheers. Chris received most of the celebration. Many of his classmates were coming over for hugs, or giving him high fives, and posing for cell phone photos. Chris was smiling from ear to ear. There really is something with this Sparkle Effect program. You can not help watching them perform a routine with out smiling and cheering, yet also having a tear in your eye.

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