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The founder of a touring “exceptional rodeo” says she gets choked up every time she talks about the impact her events have on special needs children and their families.

“When you see the participants who are normally told ‘no’ or looked at because they are different and disabled — they are the stars of the show,” said executive director Ann-Erica Whitemarsh, who started the Rascal Rodeo in 2010. “The community and the parents get to see they really do have more abilities than disabilities.”

The Rascal Rodeo brought about 60 people with disabilities and family members to the First Interstate Bank Center at the Deschutes County fairgrounds March 30, the morning of the second day of the High Desert Stampede rodeo. The rodeo experience allowed them to ride the rodeo arena on a horse, hours before the pros, as well as simulate roping a steer, milking a cow or riding a bull.

The event was initially a high school senior project for Whitemarsh in the Tri-Cities in Washington. Now, the rodeo, which visits 15 stops in Oregon, Washington and Idaho this year, is the only traveling rodeo of its kind in the country, she said.

“It started out as an opportunity for people with special needs to be cowboys and cowgirls,” she said.

While the initial rodeo drew local attention, it took years for Whitemarsh to make it a regular event. She said she was living with her parents at 27 after being laid off from four jobs in three years. She started cleaning houses and reaching out to people to earn money to start the nonprofit rodeo in 2010.

This year’s event attracted 80 volunteers to assist the youngsters. The event is free because of assistance form sponsors like PF Supply and H&E Equipment Services. Whitemarsh said it’s a moving experience for all involved.

“It’s an opportunity to show just how special and capable they are. We’ve had parents in tears because their children hadn’t smiled in three months until today,” she said.

The Rascal Rodeo was pleased to be back in Redmond, where the High Desert Stampede’s board is easy to work with, Whitemarsh said.

“Every time we’ve been down here, it’s been an incredible experience,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-548-2186, gfolsom@redmond