The student news site of University of Wisconsin-Platteville.


The student news site of University of Wisconsin-Platteville.


The student news site of University of Wisconsin-Platteville.


Sparkles show power of inclusion, the word ‘yes’

Lakyn Merfeld, 18, Dubuque, Iowa, stood in front of her cheerleading teammates at midcourt during halftime of the Pioneer men’s basketball game Jan. 26.

Merfeld and seven other special-needs students have just completed their second performance as part of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Pioneer Sparkles, the first special-needs cheerleading squad at the collegiate level.

“If this hadn’t happened for me, my dreams wouldn’t have come true,” Merfeld said.  “The girls have made my dreams come true.”

This performance was the end result of more than two months of promoting, planning and practicing, and it all began with a freshman’s suggestion to her coach.

Shelby Swanson, a freshman cheerleader and communication technologies major, came to UW-Platteville from Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf, Iowa.  Pleasant Valley originated The Sparkle Effect, a program involving special-needs students in cheerleading teams that has spread across the country.

Swanson’s twin sister Samantha was the captain of the Spartan Sparkles team Shelby’s senior year and said seeing the smiles on the faces of the special-needs students involved inspired her to bring the idea of starting a team at UW-Platteville to her head coach Patti Mitch.

After clearing the program through UW-Platteville Athletic Director Mark Molesworth and the risk management department, Mitch, Swanson and senior cheerleader and communication technologies major Shelby LeDuc did a radio spotlight on 97.7-WGLR, a radio station based in Lancaster that broadcasts in the tri-state area, to promote the squad.

At the first meeting of the Pioneer Sparkles, no one came.

“I was so devastated,” Mitch said.  “We were thinking, ‘What did we do wrong? What did we miss?’ But we weren’t going to give up.”

Following the disappointment, Mitch drafted a letter and sent it to area grade schools, middle schools and senior high schools seeking out special-needs students who wanted to get involved.  At the second meeting, four students and their families came, and two more students showed interest that were unable to attend.

Mitch and Swanson utilized, the program’s official website, to begin the process of building the program.  The website offers groups aspiring to form a Sparkles team a handbook explaining how to organize and conduct practices and performances, as well as grants to purchase uniforms, which Mitch used to obtain $1,000 for the female students’ uniforms. The male students’ uniforms cost comes from the UW-Platteville Cheer and Stunt team budget.

This money has kept the UW-Platteville Sparkle program at no cost to the special-needs students.

Along with the grant, provides Sparkle teams free, on-site training for both the special-needs students as well as the cheerleaders that accompany them in practices and performances, called mentors.

“The people associated with the Sparkle Effect have been fantastic,” Mitch said.  “They’ve answered any question we’ve had and referred us to resources – anything we could ask for.”

Both Swanson and Mitch spoke of the excitement and appreciation the parents of the student-athletes in the Sparkle program express.

“Their parents really just tell us how grateful they are that their child has a chance to be a part of a team,” Swanson said.

“Their families are so used to having to tell their child why they can’t do something,” Mitch said.  “This is an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, you can.’”

The benefits of the program are wide-ranging, according to Swanson. “For the Sparkles, this instills confidence.  For us mentors, it makes us realize what we have, and you can see the changes in attitudes that reflect that.”

George Crookshank, senior cheerleader and accounting major who serves as a mentor to 19-year-old Sparkle Challes Reese, described how these student-athletes motivate others.

“These kids are coming out here and going against all this adversity and trying to be the same as everyone else.  In the end, they’re going to inspire someone else out there with their actions,” Crookshank said. “When people see these kids do something in a stunt that most people wouldn’t think they’d be able to, you see their eyes light up.”

Sports have the power to bring together groups of people from all walks of life in a way few other institutions can, and the power of inclusion is at the core of the Sparkle program.

“To make everyone involved, that’s what it’s all about,” Mitch said.  “That’s my biggest challenge now: I want this program to meet the dreams and expectations of the athletes and their families. I don’t want to let them down. They’ve been let down enough in their life, they’ve been told, ‘no,’ enough in their life.”

Moving forward, the program plans to begin immediately with the football season in the Fall.  However, with the increased interest from tri-state area students, the team will have to perform fundraising activities to purchase uniforms for the new student-athletes.

To donate or volunteer with the UW-Platteville Pioneer Sparkles program, contact Patti Mitch ([email protected]), or to learn more about the Sparkle program as a whole, visit

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Sparkles show power of inclusion, the word ‘yes’