Unique cheerleading squad one of only three in nation

UNI Sparkles cheerleader with pom pomsThe University of Northern Iowa is now home to one of only three college-level inclusive cheerleading squads in the nation. It features two boys and nine girls who love to cheer and are avid Panther fans and just happen to have disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to autism.

The squad was formed fall semester by LeClaire native Samantha Swanson, a sophomore elementary education major with a minor in special education who serves as the squad's captain. "The Sparkles send the message that anyone can be a cheerleader or do anything they put their mind to," said Swanson.

Participants range in age from 5 to 17. They don't have to try out and thanks to a grant, there's no cost to participate. UNI student volunteers mentor the squad, helping them learn cheers, stunts and jumps.  The mentors are not required to have a cheerleading or dance background but must have a caring attitude, be comfortable working with youngsters with disabilities and make a one-year commitment to the program.

"Being a Sparkle changes these kids. They come out of their shell," said Swanson. "They have an opportunity to be involved in an activity, just like other students."

Swanson was a cheerleader at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, which also has an inclusive cheerleading squad. She brought this life-changing program, her love of cheerleading and passion for working with children with disabilities with her to UNI. To learn more about becoming a UNI Sparkle or mentor, contact Samantha Swanson at 563-370-6821 or smswanson@uni.edu.

Catch the UNI Sparkles in action at the McLeod Center when they take the floor during UNI basketball games.

News and Announcements

The UNI women's basketball team will take on Illinois State at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 6, at the McLeod Center. The men's basketball team will be in St. Louis for the MVC Tournament March 6-9.