BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A couple downpours and a soggy rodeo arena couldn’t dampen the spirits of about two hundred special needs children and adults at the 18th edition of the Special Kids Rodeo.
Pre-rodeo events kicked off on Saturday morning right at dawn with the Lee County Democrats serving up a pancake breakfast on the grounds with a line wrapping around the shelter house still at 9:30 a.m.
Then all attention shifted to the rodeo grounds where Master of Ceremonies Craig Kelly and Special Kids Chairman Lisa Wood got participants and mentors revved up for a morning of horseback riding, simulated bull and calf roping, simulated bronc and bull riding, trolley rides, goat tail ties with real goats, and stickhorse barrel racing.
Kelly walked the grounds letting participants talk on the p.a. system about their experiences. Kelly also knelt between a group of participants and led a group in singing the national anthem.
Wood said she’s been part of the event since its inception is proud of the progression the event has seen over almost two decades.
“This is our 18th year doing this and I’ve been the chairperson for 15 years,” Wood said. “When we first started, we only had 13 participants and our record is 308. Lately we’ve been averaging about 250 and they come from all three states.”
Wood has been a special education teacher for 31 years and currently teaches in the Burlington Community School District system. She says special needs individuals have always been a part of her adult life. She has a daughter with Down’s Syndrome.
And not only is organizing the event her responsibility, but Wood worked through the stations engaging with participants and making sure that everyone was smiling and enjoying the morning, despite a downpour that sent some, not everyone, running for cover.
“It’s an amazing event that allows these special needs individuals to get out and participate. The horseback riding is the probably the most popular thing they do They seem to love that.” she said. “It’s been a piece of my heart.”
Jinni Hanson from Bentensport raced with Wood around the stickhorse barrel racing course and said the rodeo is one of her favorite things to do and has been coming for more than 10 years.
“My favorite things is the horseback riding and the rockin’ horses.” Hanson said. “I like the barrel racing, too. That’s fun.”
Lance Shelton, an adult participant from Quincy, said he has been coming for years, too, and looks forward to Saturday each year. He said he prefers the more exciting rides.
“I don’t remember how long I’ve been coming,” Shelton said after dismounting the simulated bronc ride with the help of Miss Wapello Rodeo Scarlett Gruener. “I think this and the mechanical bull are the most fun.”
This year the rodeo added face painting and the simulated saddle bronc riding on new horses built just for the Special Kids’ event.
After everyone has had a chance to participate in as many events as they like, they were invited into the pavilion for a free lunch provided by the Tri-State Rodeo.
Also all volunteers, participants, and their families we’re given a free ticket to the Tri-State Rodeo.
Wood said being a special education teacher has helped her build the program over 15 years.
“It helped a lot because I was able to contact a lot of the area schools and reach out to special education teachers to help spread the word about what’s going on down here,” she said.
She said it’s also great that because of the number of volunteers, parents and family get to just walk around and watch their loved ones engage in the activities.
“They love it, because we have so many volunteers the parents get to go around and watch and they don’t have to work with their child as much – and they say it’s just amazing.”
The volunteers are also near and dear to Wood’s heart. Volunteers from all walks of life walked the grounds and helped participants get on horses, move from one station to another, and make sure everyone was having fun and were safe.
“I get more comments from volunteers about how amazing it is and that once they do it one time, they are hooked and they do it every year.”