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Rodeo for All

Michelle Casas Groogan
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Haley Andrews

LIL’ RUSTLER Haley Catherine Andrews rides in the Lil' Rustlers Rodeo, which is organized by the Special Children's Committee. (Photo: Photographed Events by jema)

You don’t have to look far to see a wide range of smiling faces at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. But if you look closer, you’ll notice the rodeo leaves no one out. Organizers mean it when they say it’s an experience everyone should enjoy. 

Buzz resident Jackie Andrews, a photographer, has been bringing her 9-year-old daughter, Haley, who loves horses, to participate in the Lil’ Rustlers Rodeos the last three years. The events – this year on March 5, 6 and 11 – at the main arena at NRG Center allow children with special needs to be the stars of the rodeo, with stick-horse races, bucking seesaws and hay barrels to rope. Haley is challenged with Down syndrome, autism, ADHD and Hirschsprung’s disease.

That’s where the Special Children’s Committee comes in. 

“They don’t let you worry about anything,” said Jackie. “They take care of our parking, and they shuttle us to the arena, and they assign a volunteer to Haley. They get to ride the horses around the ring and play games and play with the clowns. Their name and pictures are on the big screen, and an announcer is calling their names out. They take really good care of us in the Lil’ Rustlers program.”

The vastness of the HLSR, with all the sights, sounds and smells, can be sensory overload for anyone, but for someone with a disability it can be overwhelming. Volunteers who make up the Special Children’s Committee (all 222 of them) help families navigate events like the Lil’ Rustlers Rodeo and Top Hands Horse Show. They also help organize the three rodeo nights where HLSR donates 1,000 tickets to families with special needs. It is a well-run machine that they have been making happen since 1952. 

It’s meaningful service for volunteer committee member and Buzz resident Carol Lee Lyons. “One of the things that is so special about this committee is that it has been serving children and adults with intellectual or physical differences since the 1950s, which historically has been a population kind of ignored or unseen,” said Carol Lee, who has a niece with autism. “The fact that this organization recognized so long ago that individuals with special needs deserve to participate and enjoy all that the rodeo is, it’s pretty remarkable.” 

Claire Stuewer, Tom Eaton, Karl Stuewer, Chris Stuewer

Three generations serving special needs children on the Special Children's Committee. Pictured are Claire Stuewer with her dad, Tom Eaton, son of committee founder Lucia Painter Eaton and Claire's two sons, Karl and Chris Stuewer. 

The committee was born of the vision of Lucia Painter Eaton, who had a child with cerebral palsy. Eaton's family proudly recalls her fierce advocacy – lobbying for her son and other children with special needs in the state legislature when her child was denied enrollment to his public school in 1942. She organized a group called the Mother’s Club to fight for the rights of children with different abilities. By 1944, children with disabilities were invited to the rodeo's opening-day performance as the special guests of caring ticket holders.

“My grandparents had tickets to the rodeo, and they donated their tickets, and they asked everyone around them to donate their tickets for a particular night so my Uncle Tuff and his classmates could come to the rodeo. That’s how it started and later became a committee,” said Claire Stuewer, Eaton’s granddaughter, who along with her father, Tom Eaton (Tuff’s brother), have all served as chairs of the committee. Claire’s sons, Karl and Chris Stuewer, are new committee members. 

“I think as a woman she was quite a trailblazer,” Stuewer said of her grandmother. “I’m very proud to continue the legacy.”

In 1952, the (formerly named) Houston Fat Stock Show recognized the actions of the Mother’s Club and created the formal Special Children’s Committee. The committee has evolved to include tours in Agventure, the Lil’ Rustlers Rodeo and the Top Hands Horse show (this year, Feb. 15-16 in NRG Arena), which offers physically challenged riders of all ages the opportunity to compete in six events, including showmanship at halter, English equitation, Western equitation, trail, pole bending and barrel racing. 

Buzz residents Tim and Pat Phillips volunteer on several of the 108 committees that make up HLSR. But they say serving on the Special Children’s Committee the last 14 years has been the most rewarding. “You develop these friendships and these bonds, not only with the children but with their families and the adult volunteers and staff members at the schools,” said Tim. “It’s kind of like a family reunion.”

This will be Haley’s last Lil’ Rustlers Rodeo, since children age out at 10. There's little doubt her final round-up will again make lasting memories, of a child's joy and a parent's gratitude. “I can’t say enough good things about this committee,” said Haley’s mom, Jackie. “Everyone is smiling; they don’t have that look on their face. And the volunteers are so ready to give of themselves.”

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo runs Feb. 25-March 17. See rodeohouston.com.

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