By Kelly Young
It may not have been as exciting as the “real” rodeo; the horses might have moved at a slower pace and the calves that were roped may have been fake, but Saturday’s Junior Rodeo for Exceptional Kids was the most meaningful of Western Week’s festivities — and the most appreciated by those involved.
The junior rodeo, which began at 8 a.m. and ended at 10 a.m., offered Jacksonville’s special needs children the opportunity to ride horses, rope calves, compete in barrel races, and take a leisurely ride in a horse-drawn wagon.
“We have some kids that are blind, some that have autism and we have some that are wheelchair-bound,” said Jennifer Cook of the Jaycees. “I had a lady ask me if we had an age limit on it, she has a 21-year-old child who has special needs, and I told her that we won’t turn anybody away.”
The kids involved were all smiles as they rode the horses around the rodeo floor or tried to lasso a wooden calf. One wheelchair-bound little girl, Taylor Johnson, wasn’t able to ride the horses on her own, but that didn’t stop her from riding along with a volunteer with a broad grin on her face.
“This is Taylor’s first year coming here,” said Taylor’s guardian, Pam Carpenter. “She really seems to be enjoying herself.”
It wasn’t just the special education children that had all the fun — the siblings of the special needs children and the kids of the Jaycees volunteers were also welcome at the rodeo.
One little girl in particular looked right at home up in the saddle. According to her father, Faith Jones hadn’t been to the rodeo before, but she certainly seemed comfortable riding the horses.
“This is her first year here and she’s normally scared of bigger animals like horses and big dogs,” said Faith’s father. “But she’s taken to these horses pretty good.”
Faith is not a special needs child, but both of her parents, Bobby and Kristal Jones, were volunteering to help out the Jacksonville Jaycees.
“We’re just here helping them out. We love the junior rodeo and we love helping do it. Our hearts really go out to these kids,” said Bobby Jones. “We’re from the Tyler chapter of the Jaycees, just coming down here and helping out the Jacksonville chapter.”
The children were all given a bag of goodies including toys from Sonic, coloring books and firemen hats from State Farm, and little, stuffed horses.
“We are out there taking Polaroids of each child in an activity, so we’ll send them all home with a photo of what they did.” Cook said.
This is the eighth year that the Jaycees have hosted a junior rodeo. All food and prizes at the non-profit event were donated to the Jaycees.
“We plan to keep the junior rodeo going for as long as we can get kids to show up,” said Stefanie McMullen, coordinator of the event. “This year’s turnout is the best we’ve had in several years. We had 25 or 26 today, and last year with had less than 20.”
McMullen believes that the memories formed at Saturday’s junior rodeo will stay with the children involved for a long time.
“A lot of the kids that come to this don’t get to enjoy the normal rodeo as much as the rest of us do. This gives them a hands-on experience that they normally wouldn’t get,” McMullen said. “Getting to feel the horses and roll around in the dirt with them gives them a good childhood memory that they will carry on forever.”
By Kelly Young
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