Where there’s a willing heart, you’ll find outstanding abilities, and that couldn’t be more true for people with mental and physical challenges, said Ann-Erica Whitemarsh, founder of the Rascal Rodeo.
The rodeo, which happens this weekend at the TRAC center in Pasco, gives people of all ages, who struggle with mental and physical disabilities, the chance to experience the Western way of life. They get to hang with horses and cows like real cowboys and cowgirls, Whitemarsh said.
“I started Rascal Rodeo for the enjoyment of these participants, but volunteers, caretakers, parents and myself get something out of seeing the pure joy, nonjudgmental love that these participants give off to everyone,” she said. “When parents see their child smile for the first time in months, or watch them get out of their wheelchairs and get on the back of a horse with people cheering for them, well, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
The rodeo is from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Nov. 22. People can watch for free. The event is the 12th rodeo Whitemarsh has organized for the mentally and physically challenged, who have ranged in age from 2 to 68.
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“We expect more than 60 to take part on Saturday. Participants will be partnered with a volunteer or two, (given) a T-shirt, cowboy hat, bandana, sheriff badge, then they go into the rodeo arena and get to do roping, riding and cow milking,” Whitemarsh said. “The ACE Cheer team also will give a performance.”
The men, women and kids who take part in her rodeo have all sorts of conditions, including Down syndrome, spina bifida, autism, schizophrenia, hearing and sight loss, she said. Most take part in all the activities, such as calf and steer roping, cow milking, stick horse barrel racing, bull and bronc riding, pony cart rides and horse and pony rides.
The rodeo also will have a surprise guest, but Whitemarsh isn’t giving any clues. “Can’t tell you if the guest has four legs or two,” she said. But the guest promises to be entertaining, and there will be a photo booth on site for anyone who would like a photo taken with the guest.”
The Rascal Rodeo is a nonprofit founded by Whitemarsh in 2001, as a senior project. But after she saw the joy it brought the developmentally challenged participants, she decided to continue the event.
For the first 11 years, she had to borrow a pickup from friends to haul props and equipment to each site, which include events in Wyoming, California and Idaho. Then last year, she competed for the 100 Cars For Good program, a national competition sponsored by Toyota, and won a new Toyota Tundra. The new truck has been a lifesaver, she said.
Whitemarsh tells the story on her website about the first time she met a child with special needs. She was in elementary school and befriended a blond, blue-eyed boy with Down syndrome. It was that friendship that led her to organize Rascal Rodeo.
“You could be yourself, and be confident whether you were wearing your brother’s hand-me-down boots or going through one of your awkward stages,” she said. “These were children we could count on for always accepting you for who you are. While the other kids made fun of these special needs kids, I grew to love and value their friendships.”
For more information about Rascal Rodeo or to make a donation, go to www.rascalrodeo.org.