Torrey Pines High School cheerleader Juliette Dicken is the kind of teenager you can really root for. The big-hearted sophomore is responsible for starting “The Sparkle Effect” at her school this year, a cheerleading team that brings together students with and without disabilities.
The team’s first performance took place during halftime at a Junior Varsity basketball game Jan. 19.
“I really have a passion for working with people with special needs and I love cheer, I’ve been doing it for 10 years,” Juliette said. “I wanted to do something that includes both of the things that I love doing.”
While cheering at the Pop Warner level, Juliette always admired the league’s Challenger Cheer program for individuals with special needs. In searching for a way to bring a similar experience to the high school level she found The Sparkle Effect, a nationwide program that started in Iowa in 2008, founded on the idea that “Inclusion is not so much an activity as it is a way of thinking.” There are over 150 teams in the country but Torrey Pines’ team is the first in San Diego and one of only three teams in California.
In order to get The Sparkle Effect up and running at Torrey Pines, Juliette needed to get the necessary approvals from the administration as well as a teacher to be the program’s advisor. She connected with physical education teacher Joy Kuemmerle at the advice of her counselor, Jayme Cambra. Juliette sent Kuemmerle a detailed Power Point presentation.
“I chose to get involved because of Juliette,” said Kuemmerle. “Her maturity and her passion for launching this program was nothing I had ever come across from a student, ever. I have the privilege to help support a young woman who wants to do really good things for really good people.”
The national Sparkle Effect program sent a trainer to run a half-day clinic to teach the cheer mentors how to work with students with special needs and also gave Juliette a $1,000 national grant for varsity uniforms for the team. Juliette has four peer leaders that help her: sophomores Annette Butler and Ari Durant, and freshmen Kate Ackell and Lexi Patterson.
The team currently has 17 cheerleaders and 11 students with disabilities. They meet during fourth period and the cheerleaders help students through their adapted PE activities, teach cheers and sometimes have dance parties.
“We have a buddy system to do one-on-one work but we try to have everyone interact with everybody to become more of an all-inclusive team,” Juliette said. “It’s fun because they all have such unique personalities and, a lot of the time, you don’t take the time to get to know kids with disabilities and be friends with them. It’s cool it to be on the team with the kids, to teach them, spend time with them and bond.”
On game days, they meet up after school to go root for the home team and perform at Junior Varsity basketball match-ups. The Sparkle kids love doing the “Falcon Rock” and “Cardinal and White” cheers at half time and chanting “offense!” and “defense!” while sitting in the front row at games.
“I know this is an amazing program because I am privileged to see firsthand some of the effects it has on the students involved. I get to see the smiles, the laughter, the friendships forged, the high fives, the hugs, the cheers, the excitement, the hard work of planning and practices, and even the response from the crowds when we perform our cheers,” Kuemmerle said. “It’s exciting when the loudest cheers at the JV basketball games are those from the crowd after TP Sparkle performs at halftime!”
Juliette said that she has definitely noticed a change in team members — some kids who wouldn’t even talk to her in the beginning now feel comfortable holding her hand. She loves to see the confidence the kids have gained to perform out on the court in front of the crowd.
Juliette’s buddy for adaptive PE and Sparkle Effect is Riley Pathman.
“Our son Riley loves doing Sparkle cheer with his friend Juliette,” said Lisa Pathman, Riley’s mom. “Riley is practicing cheer moves with his physical therapist and always looks forward to it. Our family believes in inclusion and we appreciate like-minded people like Juliette who help create opportunities for people with special needs to have a wonderful school experience.”
A pep rally is being planned for the end of the month and Juliette would like to organize a team pizza party. She also hopes that Sparkle Effect can get involved cheering at Miracle League games or maybe even at football games next season. She has high goals to make Sparkle Effect its own class period instead of just existing within the adapted PE class.
“I hope it becomes an every-year program,” said Juliette. “I want to make sure it carries on after we all graduate.”
Kuemmerle is definitely rooting for Juliette and Sparkle Effect’s continued success.
“Juliette is amazing. For her to see beyond herself and want to create a cheer program to foster inclusion for those with disabilities is a joyous thing. As my daughter would say, ‘It makes my heart warm’,” Kuemmerle said. “The biggest lessons I have learned from my experiences over the years — but especially this year — are that one, we are all more alike than different, and two, anyone can be a friend to another person.”
Riley Pathman and Juliette Dicken of the Sparkle Effect team.