In the 1930’s, “Little Rascals” (Our Gang), was a favorite film series about a group of adventuresome young kids. But it was spunky Darla who captured America’s heart.
Now, fast-forward 60 years to another little girl – someone much like Darla – who was every bit as plucky. “When I was in elementary school, probably third grade, I noticed the special needs kids were segregated and the only time we saw them was at recess – and then the bullies would throw rocks at them,” 31-year old Ann-Erica Whitemarsh remembers vividly the long ago scene. “But I picked those rocks back up and threw them at the bullies.”
A “time-out” at the schoolyard wall was punishment for her “misdeed” – more than once. But nothing could dampen this girl’s compassion for kids with disabilities.
By the time Ann-Erica was a teen, she was still gutsy when defending these special students, several who had become her friends at Pasco High School.
“I remember some of the high school boys picking on them and I’d walk in between them and make eye contact so they’d know that it wasn’t OK,” she says about the bullying. But even though she had stepped-in to protect the special needs students, their emotional wounds ran deep. Ann-Erica questioned God, asking what more could she do?
And then the idea came to her, a thought she considers heaven-sent.
“I wanted to rodeo when I grew up, but being a city kid I didn’t have a horse,” says Ann-Erica. “I didn’t have the opportunity to do it and I knew these kids didn’t have the opportunity, but I’d heard about Exceptional Rodeo in other states.”
Immediately, she saw an opportunity to show boys and girls with disabilities that they truly had many abilities; a way to help them feel accepted and loved.
In 2001 the bubbly brunette’s Senior Project launched the first Exceptional Rodeo in the Tri-Cities, an event that provided real horse rides and specially designed faux rodeo activities in an arena. Not too long after, Ann-Erica got a summons to the principal’s office.
“I didn’t think I was in trouble, but I didn’t know why I was going. I hadn’t been throwing rocks,” Ann-Erica says with a smile about receiving news she’d been chosen for the state Prudential Spirit of Community Award for Youth.
Ann-Erica had unknowingly found her life’s calling, but college beckoned for a business degree. It wasn’t until she was employed in her chosen career that her passion resurfaced.
“God, I don’t know how to do this and so get it out of my head,” Ann-Erica had prayed one evening.
And that’s when she got the direction she needed.
“The name ‘Rascal Rodeo’ came to me and ideas and visions of what I could do,” reflects Ann-Erica of this life-changing moment, one that has taken her far beyond what she could have imagined.
Today, after years of determination and hard work, she is the Founder and President of non-profit Rascal Rodeo. Together with real-life cowboy and cowgirl volunteers, participating children and young adults throughout the Northwest are given the opportunity to be special athletes in a rodeo setting, to see they have more abilities than disabilities.
“I look back now and see that’s what God had instilled in me and that was the purpose for my life,” reflects Ann-Erica.
And like the “Little Rascals” star Darla, this spunky young woman has captured the hearts of young and old alike as she hangs-out on rodeo days with special needs friends. But more importantly, she has captured the essence of the heart of God – love for all of his children.
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