Free range

A Western-themed event lets kids forget their disabilities.

Story By Cindy Dashnaw • Photos by Ricky Reynolds 

Kiwanian Julie DeGeorge remembers the sunny day at a ranch in Lakeland, Florida, when she was approached by a mother who’d just seen her son riding a horse for the first time. 

“She said to me, ‘Every summer, we take our son to the beach. He sits there with all the kids and tries to make friends. And we watch them drift away, one by one, until my son’s left alone. That’s what’s so wonderful about this event. Everybody’s the same. You’re not different. It’s a day with no disabilities.”

They were at the Lakeland Kiwanis Club’s annual Day Without Disabilities, a free, Western-themed carnival created explicitly for people of any age with any disability. The idea, DeGeorge says, is to give people a place to go where they don’t have to hear the words, “No, you can’t.”

“This is a private working ranch, so things aren’t [ADA] accessible. You decide what you can do. We don’t tell you. We don’t say no. Everyone has to come with a nondisabled adult, but all choices are yours.”

There’s music, food (“No sugary drinks; we’re careful what we offer,” DeGeorge says), a petting zoo, arts and crafts, games of cornhole and horseshoes and a hayride where kids feed the ranch’s cows. There’s also a big favorite: horseback rides. 

“We put them on the horse with a team of people walking around them,” DeGeorge says. “Some kids don’t want to ride; they just want to pet the horse. So we bring a miniature horse the kids can pet. They throw their arms around it and snuggle.”

The event began after Matthew Cantrell, then governor of the Florida District, traveled the state to see how clubs were fulfilling the Kiwanis mission. The idea for Day Without Disabilities made an impression.

That was before DeGeorge’s time. The Lakeland club launched the event in 2017. Karen Houtz, a board member and “a gal into horses, like me,” chaired the event until DeGeorge took over in 2018.

“I love horses and am a former teacher. I can’t resist hanging out with kids or trying to help them,” DeGeorge says. “It’s just joyous. Everyone’s laughing and doing things they’ve never done before.”

This story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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