The Arc of Tri-Cities holds 18th annual Partners 'n' Pals in Richland

Samantha Garcia wore her favorite frilly pink cowgirl hat Friday to Partners 'n' Pals horseback riding day in Richland.

Eyes never leaving the horses, she told the Herald she was excited. She loves horses, and she felt like a real cowgirl.

The 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome was one 120 to attend the event, organized by The Arc of Tri-Cities and CH2M Hill at the Richland Riders Club. The event was for special-needs youth -- with such disabilities as autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder -- and their parents.

Sue Pederson, Buddy Club coordinator for the Arc, said the activity-filled day gives special-needs youth a chance to develop mentally, physically and socially.

"It's an opportunity for these kids to socialize, to downshift from academic life and just play like every other kid," she said.

The event also helps parents with caring for their children during the summer, she said.

Samantha's mother, Trisha Garcia, joined her daughter at the event Friday. In the past several years that they have attended the event, Garcia has seen her daughter grow.

"(Samantha's) really outgoing now and more open to the community," she said.

Garcia leaned through the fence of the horse corral Friday to take a picture of her daughter, who grinned and waved as she rode a brown horse named Snap.

After the horse ride, Samantha dashed off to a tent where clowns juggled and volunteers painted faces. Samantha said she wanted her nose and cheeks painted red.

Sonny Jackson, a member of the nonprofit Benton-Franklin County Sheriff's Posse, volunteered at the event to guide horses and teach the youth how to lasso "cattle" made of hay.

"We make lots of noise when they rope a cow. It's really exciting," Jackson said.

The posse arranged for most of the dozen horses to be at the event.

Bob Popielarszyk, vice president of soil and groundwater remediation for CH2M Hill, has volunteered at the event since his company started sponsoring it in 2000.

"It's a great feeling to help out and give back in this way. These kids have a lot of positive energy. I look forward to this every year," he said.

Partners 'n' Pals is the most popular event during the eight- and six-week summer camps offered by The Arc, Pederson said.

Jackson attributed the popularity to the satisfaction volunteers and attendees get from the event.

"It changes the expression on people's faces to be here," he said, looking around at all the smiles.