MPCC Rodeo Team member Kaleb Fritz grabs the handle on a bucking barrel while Tracey McEntee, of Ogallala, prepares to ride. She gets instruction from Fritz's teammate Nate Bausch.
They were cowboys and cowgirls – if only for a day.
A total of 166 children with special needs turned out for the Partner Up Rodeo at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds on Wednesday.
They rode on horses and wagons, sat on a bucking barrel, swung ropes and petted donkeys, goats and a camel among many other activities. Best of all, they made friends with their heroes.
"We have several members of the Mid-Plains Community College Rodeo Team paired up with the kids out here today," said Lou Fornander, Partner Up Rodeo committee member. "The MPCC students are essentially serving as mentors, and they are making these kids so happy – words can't even explain it."
It was the fourth year rodeo athletes from the college helped with Partner Up. They put on a timed event rodeo for the children in the morning. In the afternoon, those who weren't serving as mentors, manned stations designed to introduce the kids to the western way of life.
MPCC Rodeo Team members Kaleb Fritz, of Creighton, and Nate Bausch, of Waterbury, were in charge of the bucking barrel and arguably had as much fun as the children did.
Bausch said one of the best parts for him was watching the kids get out of their comfort zones – and have fun doing it. Fritz agreed.
"It's just so nice to see the smiles on everyone's faces, and to know you helped with that," said Fritz. "Plus, this is a great way for our team to stay involved with and give back to the community that supports us."
Fornander said the event wouldn't have been nearly as successful as it was without the members of the rodeo team.
"We're just so glad they're here," said Fornander. "The team brings that authenticity that most of these kids probably wouldn't have a chance to experience otherwise."
The annual Partner Up Rodeo began in 2004 with about 20 Special Olympics athletes. It was initially organized by Sherri Dodson and Tricia Schaffer, of North Platte, and the Lincoln County High School Rodeo Team hosted it. Five years ago, Educational Service Unit 16 and community members joined in, forming a committee.
The event has grown considerably since then. Wednesday's rodeo lured in special needs kids from all over the western half of Nebraska, including Hyannis, Ogallala, Big Springs, Maxwell and Brady – just to name a few.