WWCC rodeo partnership reaches 30-year milestone

An alliance that helps fight local child abuse will celebrate its 30th anniversary in March next month

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— WALLA WALLA -- A partnership that has roped in thousands to fight local child abuse will have something to whoop about next month.

When the annual "Ride Against Child Abuse Rodeo" kicks off March 9, it will mark the 30th anniversary of an alliance that traces back to 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president and the Space Shuttle program was still new.

That was the year the Exchange Club of Walla Walla partnered with Walla Walla Community College to hold what they believe was probably the first college rodeo sponsored for the prevention of child abuse. A third sponsor that year was Mountain Oil Inc.

Dick Cook, one of the founding members of the "Ride Against Child Abuse," said the idea of the rodeo hit about three years after the Exchange Clubs of America adopted child abuse prevention as a cause in 1980.

Although the WWCC rodeo had been in existence since 1970, income had never equaled expenses. So in 1983, the college's rodeo team, coached by Tim Corfield, came up with the idea of recruiting a sponsor to make the event break even, Cook said. The team also wanted to join the Exchange Club in its abuse prevention effort.

"So they came to the Exchange (Club) and said, 'Hey, you can have all the profit, we just want to stop losing money,'" Cook said. The Exchange Club of Walla Walla agreed and the result was announced on the cover of the rodeo's 1983 program, which announced "proceeds to go towards local programs for the prevention of child abuse."

But things didn't stop there, Cook said.

The proceeds from the 1983 rodeo helped pay for a community forum on child abuse held two months later at Whitman College. Although sponsored by the Exchange Club, which was still a men's-only group at that time, the instigator was a woman, Cook said.

That was Wilma Hepker, professor of social work at then-Walla Walla College for more than 30 years. "She said, 'It's my suggestion you take your money and call a community meeting,'" Cook said. "It was her idea, her vision, that brought it together."

The Whitman College forum took place May 18, 1983, and drew 90 community members from all walks of life. After much discussion "at the end of the day there were 30 people who said, 'We want to keep talking about this,'" Cook said.

As a result, on Sept. 12 of that year, again under the sponsorship of the Exchange Club, the Walla Walla Task Force Against Child Abuse held its first meeting. In 1984, the group formally changed its name to the Walla Walla Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and became an established agency.

Since then, the "Riding Against Child Abuse" partnership between the Exchange Club, the council and the college has raised more than $300,000 for local child abuse prevention activities and college rodeo. Along with the rodeo, the council also sponsors a coloring poster contest, distributing more than 6,000 posters to all of the valley's elementary schools, including Dayton and Milton-Freewater, to promote awareness of child abuse.

Founding members of the partnership such as Cook, Ed George, John Patterson and others have also been joined by a new generation of members helping continue the effort, such as College Place City Administrator Pat Reay, who also works on major sponsor sales for the rodeo committee.

"That's what keeps this going," Reay said. "It's all about community involvement. There's a lot of hands that are involved, not just with the rodeo, but with all the associated events."

Or, as Cook summarized, "It isn't just a rodeo. It's a rodeo and a cause."

This year's event

The 2012 Riding Against Child Abuse College Rodeo will be held on March 9-11 at the Walla Walla County Fairgrounds indoor arena.

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