QUINCY -- Grace Meyer always wanted to be a cheerleader, but after she didn't make the squad last year, it seemed like it might never happen.
She found another opportunity when the Quincy High School Sparkle Squad, an inclusive cheerleading squad comprised of students with and without special needs, was created.
"It has helped me break out of my shell," the QHS sophomore said. "It has helped me be who I want to be, to be my own person."
Meyer loves getting out in front of crowds, and Sparkle Squad coach Jenni Moran jokingly refers to her as the "Voice of Sparkle." Moran coaches the squad with Stephanie Baze. Both are cross-categorical teachers.
The QHS squad has students with intellectual and learning disabilities, speech and language disorders, seizure disorders and physical disabilities, students who are accelerated learners and school leaders, and an exchange student from Thailand.
"They are not ‘like' cheerleaders," Moran said. "They are cheerleaders."
Salem Evangelical Church opened its doors for a fundraiser for the Sparkle Squad on Saturday night. The church sold more than 100 tickets for "A Night to Sparkle" before the event, and walk-ins were accepted.
The squad, which has 15 girls, received a $2,000 grant from the Sparkle Foundation to launch. Fundraisers will be crucial to ensure the squad can continue without costing the families of its members any money. The squad raised $250 at its first fundraiser at Zoup! restaurant.
"We were really intrigued by the Sparkle Squad's inclusiveness," said Salem Evangelical congregation member Barb Edwards. "Inclusiveness is what Salem is all about."
Edwards helped to coordinate the event with the church's Outreach Team. A string quartet offered entertainment, and the Sparkle Squad members served dinner for the visitors.
"These moments are why I do the job I do," Baze said. "It means a lot when I can see them out in the community, doing what they want and aspire to do."
Moran and Baze hope to double the size of the Sparkle Squad next year. This season, the squad cheered at girls basketball games. Next year, they will also perform at boys basketball and football games.
"It seemed like it would be a really fun, life-changing experience," said QHS sophomore Jasmine Cobb, "and I was right."
Cheering alongside students with special needs helped Cobb notice the similarities between the members. She developed close relationships with each of her teammates.
"I realized that we're all the same," Cobb said. "We're all really close. This is a safe place to be yourself."
Anyone interested in contributing can send a donation to the Quincy High School Sparkle Squad, care of Jenni Moran or Stephanie Baze.