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‘Arena of freedom’: Dozens experience riding, roping at Exceptional Rodeo

When you put exceptional athletes together with exceptional kids, you get an Exceptional Rodeo. That has been the case for decades now at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and the tradition continued Thursday morning on the arena dirt at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The Exceptional Rodeo, in which NFR contestants — cowboys, cowgirls and bullfighters — pair up with Clark County special needs students, was once again a big hit. In fact, this year required two buses to get the 40 youngsters to the arena.

Adam Daurio, the national principal of Exceptional Rodeo, said one of the teachers on hand Thursday put it best.

“She said, ‘We bring our kids every year because this is our arena of freedom,’” Daurio said.

The kids were certainly running free — and riding and roping, too — on the same dirt that the NFR cowboys and cowgirls compete on each night.

Among them was 10-year-old Addysen Agasi, and she was raring to go. Agasi, a huge rode fan, was color-coordinated from head to toe, decked out in pink hat, pink boots and pink frames on her glasses.

“I like the barrel racing because I like the cowgirls,” a beaming Agasi said.

One of those cowgirls, Jessica Routier, was on hand Thursday morning for her third NFR Exceptional Rodeo. She wouldn’t be anywhere else.

“It’s just amazing meeting all these kids. They’re just so excited to get to experience it,” Routier said as she helped the students through mock barrel racing on stick horses, along with mock bull riding/bronc riding. “It keeps things in perspective. If you can brighten someone’s day a little bit, it makes your day better.”

Routier said she feels rodeo cowboys and cowgirls make a natural connection with these children, helping pull many of them out of their shells.

“I think cowboys and cowgirls have a soft spot for kids,” Routier said. “When the kids sense how much you love them, it’s easy to make a connection.”

Mission accomplished with Agasi, who although she loves barrel racing, seemed to have an entertaining ride on the mock saddle bronc.

Mother Michelle Agasi and sister Nenna Agasi — a special education teacher in the Clark County School District — were gushing with praise for the opportunity that the NFR Exceptional Rodeo affords these children.

“It’s really exciting to see all these kids able to experience the rodeo,” Michelle said. “Last night, Addysen said, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna be able to sleep, because I’m so excited.’ It just fills me up. It’s so wonderful to see how much joy she has.”

Added Nenna: “I’m seeing it from a teacher’s perspective, a family’s perspective and a rodeo fan’s perspective. I get to see Addysen be excited and get to participate. To see the joy on her face is amazing.

“These cowboys and cowgirls are such real people. They’re super authentic, very kind and personable.”

Bullfighter Dusty Tuckness has been part of the NFR Exceptional Rodeo for more years than he can count. And it never gets old. He spent the morning tutoring 8-year-old Bronson Hart, among others, in the finer elements of riding, racing and roping.

“This is just something really special,” Tuckness said. “Events like this are part of our sport — getting kids out and about and getting them a unique experience. It’s great that what we do for a living can put a smile on their faces.

“That’s what brightens my day. That’s why I do this, for moments like these that you’ll always remember.”

Nevada State Bank is locked in as the sponsor of the NFR Exceptional Rodeo, and its employees jump in with both cowboy boots. Lela Palsgrove, vice president-relationship manager, said this event is something the company looks forward to every year.

“Everybody feels the excitement. This is the event where everybody at Nevada State Bank would’ve come, if they could,” Palsgrove said. “The NFR is such a huge event here in Las Vegas, and we’re a community bank. We’re very active in the community. With the Exceptional Rodeo, we want to support these kids.

“It’s just such a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the children. Not many people get to come experience something like this. It’s something they’re going to remember and cherish for the rest of their lives.”

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