Bringing boundless cheer: The Snohomish High Sparkle Squad
Doug Ramsay photo
From right, Nayeli Sandbeck, Sydni Morton and Melelani Johnson cheer at the Jan. 17 Snohomish High girls’ basketball game. Along with varsity cheerleader Julieonny Ubiera (far left) perform a cheer called “Trucking” with the varsity cheerleaders during a timeout break at the game.
SNOHOMISH — Even amid the band’s booming take on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” and the squeak of sneakers taking the ball to the hoop, the cheerleaders stand out at Snohomish High School games.
This year, three in particular are adding their own pizzaz to high-spirited routines.
Sydni Morton makes even the clapping into a joyful full body bounce.
Melelani Johnson’s lavender hair glints under the gym lights as the petite powerhouse hits each pose.
And Nayeli Sandbeck shows off graceful style as her hips shimmy in time with the chants.
These are the girls of Snohomish High’s Sparkle Squad, a unique program for students traditionally left out of many extracurricular activities.
Morton, 17, and Johnson, 16 have Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes physical and intellectual disabilities. Sandbeck, 16, has a learning disability and speech delay from an illness in infancy.
One thing all the girls and their parents have is a love of the squad and its coach, Kendra Peterson.
At the request of Morton’s mom, Peterson created the Sparkle Squad three years ago.
“(Sydni is) just happy and full of love, she listens to music all the time and dances in her room,” dad Steve Morton said.
With all those qualities, cheerleading seemed a natural fit.
“It’s to (Coach Peterson’s) credit she didn’t dismiss the idea,” he said. Such programs are uncommon and figuring out how to integrate the girls into cheerleading took some thought.
Today, the Sparkle Squad cheers at basketball and football home games, but not away games. After wearing more generic cheer uniforms the first two years, this year they ordered through the varsity’s supplier and wear suits almost identical to the other girls.
The only noticeable difference in the wording — on the front of the varsity uniforms, it says “Snohomish” in fabric, but for Morton, Johnson and Sandbeck, it is, fittingly, “Panthers” in black sequins.*
The girls perform the routines in formation with the varsity students. The steps are sometimes out of rhythm, other times drawn out or truncated, but always done with infectious energy.
Before the Jan. 22 game, Sparkle Squad parents and members sat down to share laughter, and the fears, that came with trying the new activity.
The parents know their kids are different in some ways from their peers. Speaking and being understood is harder. Moving in complex ways with precision, a hallmark of cheerleading, is too. And for Morton and Johnson, the characteristic facial features of Down syndrome distinguish them from their peers. The possibility of their children being teased or shunned was a real concern.
“You work so hard not to get these kids hurt,” Nayeli’s mom Nieves Sandbeck said. She was not sure about the Sparkle Squad but her husband convinced her to let their daughter try it.
Today, she’s glad she did.
Sandbeck’s speech delay has improved greatly over the years, which mom partly credits to cheer. She’s seen her step into a leadership role too, helping younger girls at a cheer clinic. Morton’s family has noticed her vocabulary and willingness to try new things has increased too.
The acceptance of the varsity squad and game audiences is another reward.
“The varsity girls love having them around,” Peterson says.
The Sparkle Squad now is used to a chorus of hellos as they walk through the halls at school.
The cheerleaders’ unity has grown through team dinners. A highlight was when fellow cheerleaders invited Sydni, a senior, to join them for Homecoming.
Still, the community acceptance hasn’t erased every concern.
Mom Nieves Sandbeck admits she’s not so sure she likes her daughter’s shimmy. “It looks a little sexy,” she laments.
While their chants may lack articulation, the way the Sparkle Squad flashes their ruby red glittery pom-poms screams school spirit.
With the “reaction of the whole student body in the stands, I can’t even tell you how many times tears have come to my eyes… the amount of connection you feel (because) these kids are so embracing …. It’s beautiful,” Steve Morton said.
* - CORRECTION: This story was corrected from the print edition.
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