Growing up in the small, sleepy city of Pasco, Wash., Ann-Erica Whitemarsh dreamed of being a cowgirl. She grew up playing sports, though rodeo wasn’t one of them.
At 17, Whitemarsh decided to plan a rodeo of her own as her senior high school project—organizing volunteers to help special-needs kids in her town participate in a fun event just for them. Within a few months, she had pulled together 20 volunteers to help 4 participants join the event.
“It gained lots of media attention—and the pictures were absolutely priceless,” Whitemarsh says. When she headed to college, she set aside her passion for a special-needs rodeo, not picking it up again until nearly a decade later in 2010. This time she aimed bigger—with 7 participants and 50 volunteers to make it happen.
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“Everybody loved it, the media loved it,” Whitemarsh, now 30, says. “That’s when I knew that that’s what I needed to be doing.”
She put roughly $2,000 of her own money into funding another event, and relied on sponsors and donations for the rest of the funds. Unemployed at 28 years old and living with her parents, she says people often told her she needed to get a “real job” and she wouldn’t be able to support herself with the Rascal Rodeo –but she went all in anyway.
Whitemarsh believes ignoring skeptics is a core principle of Rascal Rodeo. “I think that the more people that can see what special-needs people can do, the better our communities will be,” Whitemarsh says. “So many people look at people in a wheelchair and don’t think they can do things.”
Aside from finding sponsors and volunteers, Whitemarsh says her biggest obstacle was convincing her town’s local fair rodeo board that her non-profit organization was worthwhile for the community. “They said, ‘why are you doing this if you aren’t making any money?’” Whitemarsh recalls. “And I said, ‘for the participants, because I want them to have the opportunity.’”
But while making a profit wasn’t her main goal starting out, Whitemarsh hopes to grow her enterprise’s revenue from just $14,600 to about $300,000 in the next five years. And she plans to reach that goal without ever charging participants to attend. “The families have more expenses than the average family,” she says. Instead, she will rely on fundraising events, donations and sponsors to fund Rascal Rodeo.
Whitemarsh says word of the special-needs rodeos has already spread to nearby towns and states. Last year, she put on seven Rascal Rodeos in Washington and Oregon, and this year she’s planning a dozen more. All ages are welcome (the events have hosted 2-year-olds and 68-year-olds), and participants have disabilities ranging from autism, to cerebral palsy, schizophrenia and hearing and sight loss.
“They may not be able to speak their happiness, but you can see it,” Whitemarsh says. “You ride double with them so you’re holding onto them, and you can feel the relaxation going through their body.”
Whitemarsh says the need for Rascal Rodeo is out there. And though she still sometimes needs to babysit and clean offices to make ends meet, Rascal Rodeo has made enough money to support Whitemarsh for the most part—the vehicle she drives and the house she lives in come from her Rascal Rodeo work. “To me, being happy in what you do is more important than any amount of money,” she says. “Just wish I could figure a way for my student loans to disappear.”
Why do you deserve to be on our Young Female Entrepreneurs to Watch list?
“I don’t believe I deserve anything but I do believe my organization should be something people learn about and watch for, as it is growing rapidly. Our main goal is to show communities how amazing special-needs people are. Their abilities are endless when given the opportunity. I am thankful that I have been given the knowledge and desire to be an advocate and offer a fun, exciting, sense of accomplishment event for such amazing people. It has taken lots of work and determination to get it going.”