Sunshine Rodeo gives special-needs students opportunity to overcome challenges
On a still-warm Friday morning in October, a long line of yellow school buses stretches in front of the rodeo arena at Crossroads Cowboy Church in El Paso. Students dressed in colorful T-shirts exit their buses, many of them in wheelchairs or assisted by paraprofessionals, and are met with enthusiastic cheers and applause from volunteers assembled to greet them.
At the front of the volunteer line is Binky, the rodeo clown, wearing a big smile and a patriotic outfit — with red suspenders, bandanas tied to her belt loops, red cowboy boots and a cowboy hat with a toy duck attached to the top. Students light up when they see Binky, who directs them to the center of the rodeo arena. Inside is a mustached cowboy, with a straw hat, red bandana, and riding Martha, his buckskin mare. With a wide-toothed grin and a deep, bellowing voice he announces, “Today is a great day! Welcome to the Sunshine Rodeo!”
Binky, also known as Becky Boyd Switzer of McRae, and the cowboy, Micky “Moose” Brewer of Beebe, are the founders and organizers of the Sunshine Rodeo, an event with rodeo-themed activities specifically tailored for students with mental and physical challenges.
Students get to be cowboys and cowgirls for the day with activities like horseback riding, barrel bucking, stick-horse racing, roping, goat tail ribbon pulling, covered wagon riding and a petting zoo.
“Around 1995, I was on the board of the Arkansas Chuck Wagon Racing Association, and we wanted a service-type activity to help the community in some way,” Switzer explained. “I had seen special rodeos for mentally and physically challenged individuals, so we decided to try to have our own. I contacted the Sunshine School in Searcy, which is a special-needs school, and they were excited to be part of the rodeo. So that’s how it started and how it got its name.”
Held in Opal, the first Sunshine Rodeo in 1996 had about 30 students. The annual event now averages approximately 225 students from the Sunshine School and public schools from Beebe, Cabot, Searcy, Batesville, Vilonia, Des Arc and Jacksonville North Pulaski.
Sally Paine, executive director of the Sunshine School, said the rodeo is something her students look forward to each year.
“For our students, it’s a big step toward assimilation,” she said. “For some, it’s being able to overcome fears to participate in activities, like getting on a horse. For others there’s overcoming sensory issues, like just being able to touch an animal. They all just want to be cowboys for the day.”
Sunshine School student Faith Busby loves horses and attended the rodeo for the first time last year. Faith was able to ride a horse with the help of volunteers and a custom ramp.
“For those in a wheelchair, like Faith, they don’t have the freedom to walk, so riding a horse is kind of like they’re walking on their own,” said Stephanie Busby, Faith’s mother. “There were volunteers on each side of the horse protecting her. Faith loved it so much.
It was her favorite thing to do.”
An army of volunteers
Each year, more than 100 volunteers help to make the Sunshine Rodeo a safe and fun environment. In 2001, students from Arkansas State University-Beebe’s agriculture program began volunteering. As the rodeo grew each year, students from veterinary technology, education, business and honors programs helped.
“Every year our students look forward to volunteering,” said Chuck Wisdom, assistant professor of agriculture. “It’s no longer just a community service project. It makes a great impact on them. I even have ones that were my students years ago that still show up to volunteer. They bring horses, wagons and pitch in wherever needed.”
The event depends on volunteers to set up and tear down, steady horse riders, guide stick-horse racers, brace bucking-barrel riders, hold animals for petting, among other duties.
Safety is paramount for the rodeo. Over the years, volunteers have also helped to build devices that aid in a safe experience.
“It was just ingenuity,” Brewer said. “We had to come up with ways to make everything a whole lot safer. We had to figure out how to get these kids up to the horse’s level so volunteers can lift them and safely put them on a horse. That’s how we came up with the idea to build a ramp.”
Brewer said he consults with Paine each year to get her input on safety features for the activities.
“The volunteers are so safety-conscious and want to make sure they’re handling everything in ways that are safe for everybody,” Paine said.
With volunteers and safety measures in place, students are able to do things they never thought possible.
Paine fondly recalled one of many rodeo memories: “There was one little guy in my classroom who got on a horse. His mom said she couldn’t believe he actually rode a horse. She said he was very fearful of a lot of things. Taking that big step changed him.”
Brewer said one year he noticed a young girl in a wheelchair; her teacher said she was nonverbal and wouldn’t participate. “With her permission, I picked the student up and put her in my arms facing me,” he said with sounds of a lump in his throat. “I put us on the horse, and volunteers led us around. She reached out and touched my face. By the time we got back to the ramp to dismount, her face was lit up with a huge smile.”
Later that year, Brewer received a card from the teacher saying because of that experience, the student was participating in class when she hadn’t before.
“If she’s the only child that had a positive change because of the Sunshine Rodeo, then it’s well worth it. But there are hundreds more stories like that,” Brewer said, grinning.
Students aren’t the only ones who ride away from the rodeo changed. It has a great effect on the volunteers also.
“It always puts a smile on your face. It really touches your heart. It’s why I wear sunglasses while helping the kids,” Wisdom said with a laugh.
Switzer said the Sunshine Rodeo has been a big part of her life. “It’s something that is very rewarding for everybody involved, especially for me and my husband. It’s where my heart is.”
And, she continued, the Sunshine Rodeo is a labor of love.
“It’s not about us. It’s about them,” she said. “We want to help their little dreams come true, where they get to be a cowboy or cowgirl for a day.”
For more information on the Sunshine Rodeo and photos from past events, visit online.