Carefree days spent running, playing, laughing, sharing ice cream cones with friends and selling lemonade in the summer are images associated with childhood.
Instead of being able to concentrate on "just being a kid," many children have to cope with problems much scarier than the proverbial monster under the bed.
Dealing with long-term illnesses, surgery, daunting procedures, hospitalization and pain are trials testing a grownup’s strength and are realities for a lot of small children.
Over 125 patients of Birmingham Children’s Hospital along with their siblings and parents placed their worries aside, donned their boots and jeans, and headed over to the Montgomery Coliseum for a night of Western fun at the 12th Annual Miracle Rodeo on March 9.
"We bring children patients and their families out to this event," said Southeastern Livestock Exposition (SLE) President Camp Powers. "We introduce them to animal agriculture. They get up-close and personal with animals. They don’t ever have a chance to do that in their normal lives. They have struggles they deal with every day. Our main job is to make them smile."
The invitation-only event is always held in conjunction with SLE Week activities and on the Wednesday night prior to the SLE Rodeo performances.
"Children who have been at Children’s Hospital with long-term illnesses get to come here," said Miracle Rodeo Chairman Mindy Newell. "They also get to bring their siblings. Sometimes brothers and sisters are left behind while the parents are trying to care for the child who is disabled or sick. This way the other sibling can get out, play and have a great time."
This year the evening opened with Katie Wendland singing the Star Spangled Banner.
Next, a grand entry led by Candace Frizzel of Matthews carrying the SLE flag and Jerrilyn Hester of Montgomery carrying the Iron Man Ministries Flag dazzled the crowd.
Local cowboys and cowgirls gave barrel racing, team roping and steer wrestling demonstrations providing attendees with a glimpse of rodeoing and a preview of the events that would be seen at the SLE rodeo performances.
Trent McFarland entertained the children with his ambulance act that he won the IFR Showcase with.
He and his dog, Cowboy, made friends as they walked around visiting with children.
Cowboy artist and entertainer Bruce Brannon fascinated the audience with a demonstration of his skills.
"The SLE does a great job and goes to a lot of trouble to make sure there’s a lot of entertainment and families feel welcome," Ruth Brewbaker of Montgomery said. "You just appreciate people going to that much trouble to make a special event for you and your family."
Children delighted in activities like dummy roping, wagon rides, horseback riding and small animals.
"It’s a great time to interact with other families and to be in that atmosphere with the farm animals," Brewbaker said.
Iron Men Ministries is one of the organizations that volunteered at the event.
"Basically everything we do is focused around children with disabilities," said Iron Men Ministries member Wes Acord. "Most of the children we reach out to are not able to walk. A lot of them are wheelchair bound. It requires a lot of work and a lot of help. Everyone who came out here to show support is a volunteer. It’s good to see people want to volunteer and be a part of an event like this."
Attending last year’s rodeo with his wife and daughter inspired Acord to become involved with Iron Men Outdoor Ministries. Seeing his close friend’s involvement in the organization also encouraged him to become a member himself.
"After seeing what they do out here, I had to be a part of it," Acord said. "I figured it would be best to give since I have the gift to give. Some of these children don’t get the opportunity to go to events like these."
Auburn University’s Block and Bridle organization, members of Huntington College’s football team and Autauga Country Drill Team also volunteered at the event.
Block and Bridle member Samantha Belanger said it was rewarding to work with the animals and give the children a chance to leave the confinement of a room or hospital bed and to ultimately, put smiles on their faces.
Tom Evans of Montgomery said the rodeo was ideal for his son, Benjamin, who used to ride horses at MANE (Montgomery Area Non-traditional Equestrians), a therapeutic riding facility.
"He had a blast," Evans said. "He’s been asking a lot of questions about goats and sheep. He’s never really been around them before. He thought that was pretty neat."
Evans commended the volunteers for providing wheelchair access by laying boards down at the event.
Calvin Lewis of Montgomery said the event was a fun activity for his family.
"I thought it was very beneficial," Lewis said. "It gave the children a hands-on experience to ride the wagon and pet the goats. We definitely enjoyed it and will come back next year."
The event is an excellent way for patients who have come to know each other in the hospital to socialize, said Alice Blake of Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
Any child, whether sick, disabled or completely healthy, can have a good time playing rodeo on this special night at the Coliseum, she added.
"It’s so generous of SLE to entertain my patients every year," Blake said. "The patients always look forward to it. A great group of volunteers put this on."
Blake said 9,700 visits were made to the tri-county Children’s Hospital last year.
Over 672,000 visits were made overall to the Children’s Hospital, Blake added.
The money raised from the Miracle Rodeo will benefit patient care and research.
This year marks the largest event yet.
"It’s bigger and better than the last one, and I think the next one will be bigger and better than this one," Powers added.
Jade Currid is a freelance writer from Auburn.