Staff Photo: John Bohn A student-run program at Dacula High School encourages students to include students with disabilities in their high school cheerleading program. Dacula cheerleaders Makenzi Germaine, left and Morgan Thomas, right, work closely with disabled student Shelby Snelgrove, age 17, at center. They are preparing a cheerleading routine for senior night festivities.
Staff Photo: John Bohn Dacula cheerleader Morgan Thomas, age 17, right, instructs disabled student Shelby Snelgrove, age 17 in a cheerleading routine. A student-run program at Dacula High School encourages students to include students with disabilities in their high school cheerleading program.
Staff Photo: John Bohn Dacula cheerleader Haley De St. Germain, left, instructs disabled student Ashlynn Butts, right in painting a banner. A student-run program at Dacula High School encourages students to include students with disabilities in their high school cheerleading program.
DACULA -- Cheerleading coach Stephanie Grant could list reasons why Dacula High School's new cheerleading program for children with special needs is a plus for the community all day long if she had the time.
To see the smile on the face of 17-year-old Ashlynn Butts, you'd be sold on the idea in a second.
Like several other girls her age, the Dacula High School student cheered with Sparkle Effect at Friday night's high school football game. The innovative student-run program encourages teens with special needs to team up with the varsity cheerleading squad, learn some jumps and make some friends.
Sparkle Effect is the only club of its kind in Gwinnett County Public Schools, and it's one of only two in the state and 35 in the nation.
Grant said the idea is to create "spirit, or 'sparkle' across the whole school. It gives these girls a sense of involvement, and our school is perfect for it, because they already embrace these students."
Butts agrees. She practiced last week with Sparkle Effect.
"I get to hang out with my friends," she said, arm gesturing toward two smiling varsity cheerleaders beside her. "It's great. I love it."
Varsity cheerleader Morgan Thomas, 17, said she has made many new friends as well teaching cheers and dances to the new Sparkle Effect squad.
"They're really sweet girls, and they're willing to learn," Thomas said.
Fellow varsity cheerleader Haley De St. Germain feels the same way.
"It's been awesome... they're so excited and you can see it on their faces," she said.
Suzie Snelgrove, the mother of Sparkle Effect cheerleader Shelby, 17, said she can see teamwork at play at the school as well as in the community as evidenced through programs like Sparkle Effect.
"This is really, really exciting for these girls. The program has a lot of support. This high school is good already with its programs, but this helps the girls stay connected," Snelgrove said.
"Having the support of the community can make it easier on everybody," she added.
Grant said Dacula High is "all about the community."
Grant said when she told her varsity cheerleading squad about the program several weeks back, "their faces lit up."
It was no shock to Grant. She said the school "embraces these students. Last year, our homecoming king and queen were both students with Down Syndrome.
"This just furthers the sense of community here," she said. "It's a new program I hope will achieve great things."
According to its website, Sparkle Effect aims for students with special needs to "experience true acceptance and gain confidence as high school students inspire entire communities to embrace inclusion."