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Crystal Lake Sparkle Squad provides opportunity for special needs youth

Sarah Nader -
Sparkle cheerleaders Sammy Sterrett (left), 15, of McHenry and Allie Baran, 18, of Palatine pose for a portrait in their cheerleading outfits at Lippold Park in Crystal Lake Wednesday, July 10, 2013. The Sparkle squad has several disabled girls and has won five consecutive state titles in their division.
Sarah Nader - Sparkle cheerleaders Sammy Sterrett (left), 15, of McHenry and Allie Baran, 18, of Palatine pose for a portrait in their cheerleading outfits at Lippold Park in Crystal Lake Wednesday, July 10, 2013. The Sparkle squad has several disabled girls and has won five consecutive state titles in their division.

Like most teams, the participants contribute with their strengths as best they can.

Samantha Sterrett has a loud voice and loves dance moves. Carlie Schuring is not as adept with the verbal part, but physically handles more than most of her teammates.

Allie Baran provides experience as the oldest member and embraces her role as captain of the Crystal Lake Raiders Sparkle Squad, a cheerleading team that is comprised of special needs youth from around the area, which was started in 2005.

The Sparkle Squad, now in its ninth year, has grown from six girls and two coaches on its first team to 14 members, six coaches and five cheer assistants last year. Sparkle also has flourished, with five consecutive Illinois Recreational Cheerleading Association state championships.

Palatine resident Deb Baran had no idea about the journey on which she was embarking in 2005. All Baran knew was she had cheerleading and dance in her background, along with a special needs daughter who craved to cheer.

Baran and her coaching staff have to deal with more than other cheerleading teams. Some girls need help with movements, some can perform hand and arm gestures from wheelchairs. Others need help in various other forms, but the effort always is worth it.

“They know I love them and care for them so much,” said Baran, Sparkles Operations vice president and head coach. “Families need this in their lives. Kids need this in their lives. It really supplements what they do in physical therapy.”

Sparkle started its ninth season Tuesday with its first practice at 6:30 p.m. at Wood’s Creek Park in Crystal Lake. The squad cheers for Crystal Lake Raiders teams at various age levels through the football season, then competes in the state series after the season.

Baran said parents with special needs children – girls or boys – who would like to join still can do so through August for this season. Baran can be contacted via the team’s website at

Jamie Wilson, 17, will be a senior at McHenry West Campus this fall and is starting her sixth year with Sparkle. She has cerebral palsy.

“You get to meet new people and have fans,” Wilson said. “It’s helped me a lot (socially). I want to keep doing it.”

Allie Baran, 18, graduated from Palatine High School this spring and will attend Harper College. Allie, who is confined to a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, is the lone remaining member from the first team in 2005.

“I like hanging out with friends and doing the routines,” Allie said.

Allie’s brother Matthew, a film student at DePaul, is about finished with a documentary on the Sparkle Squad. He recently showed a 20-minute preview to members and their families. In the film, Allie says “it allows you to follow your dreams.”

Shannon Sterrett, of McHenry, is a single mother whose daughter Samantha was born with optic nerve atrophy, a vision impairment that affects nerve endings in the eyes and depth perception. Samantha needs an aid to help with her positioning, but there’s nothing wrong with her voice.

“She’s loud and she loves to dance,” said Shannon, an assistant Sparkle coach. “I was a cheerleader in middle school and I thought this would be a good outlet for her to gain confidence and self-esteem, and to meet other peers who have difficulties like she does.”

Samantha and five other girls from McHenry West compete for the Sparkle Squad.

“I’m glad to see my friends [cheering]; I like to compete,” said Samantha, 15, who will be a junior this fall. “I like the competitions. And I like to hear the whole crowd yell for us when we’re done.”

Carlie Schuring, of Huntley, is an 11-year-old fifth-grader who is in her fifth year with Sparkle. Her mother, Maria Schuring, says the team has helped Carlie, who physically is fine but has a communication disorder.

“It’s free speech therapy for us,” Maria said. “She’s social and outgoing and she didn’t have the communication skills. It hasn’t cured her disability, but the more words in her memory, the better it is for her. She uses a lot of words she learned from cheering.”

Some Sparkle members move their arms in their wheelchairs. Others in wheelchairs need assistance for movements. One boy on the team was helped by his grandfather.

The coaches will face the team for cheers so the members can mirror them.

For Deb Baran, the experience has been beyond rewarding. By Sparkle’s second year, the team was able to cheer for half a game. Now, it does entire games.

“Who knew what this was going to be?” Baran said. “In nine years we’ve become stronger and stronger. We want to get the word out so that other families [with special needs children] know we are there.

“When I did this the first year, I thought I’d start something like it with the Palatine Panthers (youth football program). But I was so attached to these families. So I said, ‘I’ll come back another year.’ Then it got to be another year. My husband (Bob) tells me, ‘You’re always going to be coach, Deb. You’ll never walk away from it.’ ”

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