This past weekend, first responders across the greater Edmonton Region chucked their uniforms in the closet. For a day, they morphed into urban cowboys, donning cowboy hats, jeans, and big belt buckles as they pitted themselves against farm animals.
The third annual First Responders Rodeo took place on Saturday, July 16 at St. Albert’s Kinsmen Korral with 1,500 plus fans cheering on the greenhorns who at times got their butts kicked.
“We’re seeing a lot of firsts today,” laughed rodeo announcer Dom St. Amand, referring to a competitor’s stumbling dismount from his horse during the steer wrestling event.
Although laughter rippled through the stands, the event was serious about raising money for two outstanding charities: Edmonton’s Zebra Child Protection Centre and Legacy Place Society, an organization that assists first responders struggling with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or any form of stress injury or trauma.
“Our final numbers aren’t tabulated yet, but our gate came close to doubling from last year, and all the money goes to charity. It was a beautiful day, and we all had a lot of fun — first responders, sponsors, and fans,” said Justin Nunes, a board member and paramedic who participated in chute dogging and wild horse racing.
Among the cowboys there were a few minor injuries easily treated on site. The most serious was Ty Griffith, representing the Edmonton Police Service (EPS). A saddle bronc rider, Griffith surpassed his father Brian’s formerly unbeaten record, but sustained a broken collar bone.
“He went to the hospital, had an X-ray, and came back smiling,” Nunes said.
At any given time, stands were three-quarters full of multi-generational rodeo boosters.
St. Albert’s Tricia Joly, formerly of Cochrane, grew up around rodeos and wanted to introduce the experience to her children.
“It’s something new for the kids, and it’s a beautiful day to get out and do something. But the biggest part is to support the Zebra Foundation,” said Joly, a big steer wrestling fan.
“I love the camaraderie of rodeos and the atmosphere. You’re cheering everyone on. It’s such a positive experience.”
Jackson Munnings of Fort Saskatchewan bought a gate ticket to support his buddy, Austin Jackson, a firefighter competing in saddle bronc and bull riding.
“I got a text message about him participating. He’s an awesome guy and I thought ‘Why not?’ I love rodeos. I love the food. I appreciate the skill people have,” Munnings said. “I enjoy all the kids riding. It’s something I’d like my kids to do someday.”
In past years Kate Chmilar, a young teen from Spruce Grove, took part in a wild pony race, calf milking, and mutton busting. On Saturday she was supporting both parents who were competitors. In fact, her father, Marc, part of a three-man EPS team known as T’NT, won the wild horse racing event.
“I like to see my parents doing something like that. They come and have a lot of fun,” said Chmilar.
Another attendee, Loren Nienaber, drove from Evansburg to support a very young family member.
“My nephew is in mutton busting. He wants to be a rodeo star, and I’m going to watch him in mutton busting,” said Nienaber, whose family has produced several firefighters.
“I’ve had a great time today. The stock they have is really good stock. Some riders stay on. Some riders fall off. But anybody who gets on deserves a large badge.”
As fans cheered on riders in 27 C baking sun, Zebra Centre erected a cool tent on a grassy apron leading to the stands. Chief executive officer Emmy Stuebing stepped up to explain the finer points of the child advocacy centre.
“We provide children and youth three to 18 years who have experienced abuse and traumatic situations, a safe and comfortable place to tell their story,” Stuebing said.
Zebra Centre is unique in that from the moment a traumatized child is brought in, a specialized team that includes EPS, RCMP, Child Services, Albert Health Services, and Alberta Justice are involved in advocating for and assisting them.
“Last year, we had 3,844 children come through the centre, and that was a 30-per-cent increase from the year before. This year, we’re on par with last year. We’ve had close to 2,000 kids,” Stuebing said. “From the moment the abuse is reported, a team forms a plan for the child. We encourage them to tell their story. We help them navigate the court system and we help with therapy and healing.”
Stuebing notes numbers are spiking dramatically, in part due to the internet and social media. One stand-out case in 2021 involved Alberta’s Internet Child Exploitation Unit (ICE). They arrested a man whose online presence reached far and wide, she said.
“About 100 teens were called in to tell their story. It’s easy to reach large numbers through the internet, and that’s why the numbers keep going up.”
The centre has a $2-million budget with 65 per cent provided by grants. The other 35 per cent is from donations supplied by corporations, small business, and individuals.
“This is a great event, and it makes a huge difference for us with money and awareness.”
Across the way, Diana Festejo, executive director of Legacy Place Society, talks to everyone who stops at her tent. Although Legacy Place was created in 1998, few people outside first responders' circles are aware of it.
The society exists to assist first responders and their families undergoing psychological or emotional trauma that occurs from the nature of their daily work.
“When you keep scraping people off the road, it’s difficult,”Festejo said. Her words are blunt and hit hard, but they are necessary to understand and appreciate the struggles first responders face.
The society offers a confidential crisis phone line, workshops, webinars, holistic therapy, and a safe house in case a first responder is in a situation that becomes confrontational.
Legacy Place offers assistance across the province, with a $400,000 budget that pays for educational partnerships, conferences, and the mortgage and repairs on a safe house.
“This donation means a lot," Festejo said, noting that post COVID, the economic environment doesn’t make it easy for charities. "The rodeo committee has pulled this together and done an outstanding effort in bringing people together for a fun, light, heritage activity, and we’re grateful to the City of St. Albert for being a part of this.”