DeKALB — Rebecca Butler isn't the type of teenager to help a soccer team win a game or to excel in other competitive activities.
She didn't hit all of her milestones, such as walking and talking, at the same time as most children. She was diagnosed as developmentally delayed at age 7, which meant her emotional and intellectual abilities did not match her age.
But when her mother Janet Butler found out about the Sparkle Effect, a nonprofit organization dedicated to jump-starting inclusive cheerleading teams nationwide, she approached DeKalb High School Principal Tamra Ropeter and Bryon Houy, director of athletics and activities, about starting one at the school. They were immediately on board.
The Sparkles team was a chance for her 15-year-old daughter, now a freshman, and other teenagers like her to be a part of something special that wasn't competitive.
"She gets to feel like: 'Hey, I'm cool, just like these other cheerleaders,' " Butler said.
The DeKalb Sparkles cheerleading team, one of three cheerleading squads at the high school, was formed this year and started practicing in June. Rebecca, or Becca as her teammates call her, is one of three special needs members. There are also about 10 peer cheerleaders from the junior varsity and varsity cheerleading teams who work with them.
DeKalb senior Maggie Rapp, who assists team coach Lydia Faivre with the Sparkles, said the varsity and Sparkles cheerleaders buddy up to practice stunts and jumps.
"It's more about helping them fit in and building their self-esteem and letting them have fun on the team," Rapp said.
The Sparkle Effect started in 2009, with the first inclusive cheerleading team formed at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa. The nonprofit organization wanted to give people a quick way to start their own teams and there are now 118 teams nationwide. Illinois has 10 teams.
Linda Mullen, national director of outreach for Sparkle Effect, said the organization believes in social inclusion for students with disabilities in all activities, not just with cheerleading.
Inclusive cheerleading squads can inspire other coaches and advisers of other extracurricular activities to be more socially inclusive, she said. Students with disabilities don't have a bullying problem so much as a invisibility problem.
"We need to create these opportunities so peers start to see them as human beings," Mullen said. "We say at Sparkle Effect [that] we don't strive for perfection, but connection."
Rapp said the varsity and Sparkles cheerleaders are building friendships. If they see each other outside school or around school, they'll talk with each other. They also help each other out in other classes.
The Sparkles team made an appearance at a football scrimmage Friday at DeKalb High School, but they will cheer for their first homecoming football game at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at the high school.
Mullen said these cheerleading teams put students with disabilities front and center, and nobody can ignore them as they lead on the fan base.
"It causes everyone in the stadium to pause and reflect who we are as a school and a community," she said.