Cowboying is a tough go. And despite their independent, can-do nature, cowboys have always gained strength from within tight-knit communities. Though these communities were often spread across great distances, Western settlers would gather for barn raisings, round ups, and social events. This communal tradition continues in everyday cowboy life and has spilled over to the formation of Western-themed charitable organizations across the nation.
The strongest faith and values come from within, and long before Gene Autry put it into words, the Cowboy Code—and the Christian sentiments that inform its core—saw expression in everyday survival in the lawless West. It’s just the rancher’s way to be grateful for what is, to acknowledge those less fortunate, and to bring awareness to important causes. None of the hard-working and generous people profiled here were philanthropists to begin with. They each had breakthrough experiences that sparked an idea for something greater. Follow their lead to make a positive difference in someone’s life.
Western Wishes – Santa Maria, Calif. 805-929-8590, www.westernwishes.org
Donnalyn Quintana was raised in a rodeo family. She’s well-connected in the Western community, and saw an opportunity to grant wishes to and spotlight children and young adults who live and love the cowboy lifestyle but are facing tough challenges. And the program is not just limited to those facing illness or disability. Those who have had accidents or have lost family members, for instance, can get involved, too.
“I remember a kid that I read about in a high school rodeo paper,” says Quintana. “He was a roper and battling cancer, and I had this passing thought to call Roy Cooper for help. Well, that boy passed away. I found out later and thought: ‘I could’ve made a difference with one phone call.’ So that’s when I started Western Wishes.”
Founded in 1994, Western Wishes is now a national organization with 16 chapters in many states and regions of the country. “Wish Kids” are mostly found through word of mouth or by meeting people at rodeos, horse shows, and expos. Approximately 5–25 wishes are granted annually, depending on funding.
“Too many kids fall through the cracks, and it just breaks our heart when we find out too late,” Quintana says.
Western Wishes has also fostered a special partnership with horseman Chris Cox, who dedicated his Road to the Horse win this year to the organization. He and Quintana are working to develop a Wish Kid program to be held at Cox’s ranch. They hope to have a camp for Wish Kids to attend for an entire week, where kids can work the Western lifestyle and interact with different Western personalities in a faith-based environment.
“I’m so glad that he was so on the same page as I was, because we’re all such close friends,” says Quintana. “We’ve become like family, so I never wanted to obligate Chris. I never went to him, he came to me.”
Quintana likes fostering the national community that has grown out of Western Wishes. In fact, wish recipients have returned to help make other’s dreams come true as well. For instance, one leukemia survivor had her wish granted by meeting Reba McEntire; she later attended the NFR through the efforts of Western Wishes and now serves as the Utah chapter director. As their motto states, Western Wishes is “leaving a legacy of goodwill.”
Honor Flight – Springfield, Ohio 937-521-2400, www.honorflight.org
In 2004, 59 years after the end of World War II, President Bush dedicated the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. By then, many of the nation’s WWII veterans were into their 70s and older, and making the trip to see the memorial was a hardship for many. Earl Morse, a retired Air Force captain and physician’s assistant, had some veterans under his care and offered them private flights—free of charge—to see their memorial in D.C. The idea struck a chord with other private pilots, so Morse formed Honor Flight. The first flight included six small planes that flew out of Springfield, Ohio, in 2005. Since then, Honor Flight has expanded to 109 chapters in 33 states, each devoted to flying as many veterans as possible to the WWII Memorial.
In the fall of 2008, WWII veteran Gus Fleischli took the flight to D.C. with the Northern Colorado hub and subsequently started a program in Wyoming in the spring of 2009. Honor Flight Wyoming is the only Honor Flight “hub,” or locally based chapter, within that state, and each flight requires military-like coordination. Veterans take charter planes from Cheyenne or Casper and are accompanied by a staff of guardians and a medical team. Upon arrival in Washington, D.C., the veterans are treated to a banquet at a D.C. hotel and visits from state and national politicians. The next morning, the veterans are greeted by welcoming committees and schoolchildren at the memorial, honoring their service.
“The veterans don’t expect any of this, they think they’re just going on a little tour,” says Operations Officer Larry Barttelbort. “When they get off the plane, there are ladies waving flags and men shaking their hands and hugs and kisses. They get the royal treatment everywhere we go, and they are just floored by that.”
The so-called Greatest Generation, many of these men and women returned from war, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work building America into a Superpower. Known for being humble and proud, WWII veterans seldom talk about their combat experiences or efforts.
“Many of them have not left the ranch, or left their homes that much, so we provide that support network to allow them to have a very enjoyable trip,” says Barttelbort.
In a very moving gesture, each flight brings a casket flag from a Wyoming veteran who passed away to place at the memorial. A moment of silence and the playing of Taps recognizes those who were not able to make the trip. The day in D.C. concludes with a bus tour around the Nation’s Capital to see other war memorials and landmarks. Then it’s back on the plane to Wyoming, where throngs of people greet the veterans at the airport to give them a hero’s welcome home.
Tough Enough To Wear Pink – Hughson, Calif. 866-910-7465, www.toughenoughtowearpink.com
Terry Wheatley, then an executive with Sutter Home Winery, attended the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in 2004 to watch her son, a roper, compete on rodeo’s main stage. A breast cancer survivor, Wheatley asked her son if he would wear pink in support of breast-cancer awareness—and to ask other cowboys to do the same. The response was overwhelming, and Wrangler solved the lack of pink shirts with a special FedEx delivery.
“We challenged the cowboys if they were tough enough to wear pink,” says Wheatley, who is married to Jim Wheatley, a six-time NFR roper. “That first event, every single cowboy wore pink (with the exception of two, who weren’t allowed to because of their sponsors).”
She went on to found Tough Enough To Wear Pink (TETWP) in 2004, which has raised more than $10 million for local and national breast-cancer causes. Anyone who wants to host an event can contact TETWP for permission to use the slogan.
“I attribute almost all the success to the fact that the funds are kept locally,” says Wheatley. “The events are created by the independent rodeo committees and some of these folks are quite creative in how they motivate their community to wear pink or support pink during the lead up to their rodeo.”
While the individual events decide which breast-cancer initiatives to support, TETWP asks that they report how much was raised and to whom they donated it. Participants have done everything from raffling off pink-painted tractors to dying their hair pink to hosting “Pink Glove Dances.”
While Wheatley may have passed on day-to-day TETWP operations to her daughter and daughter-in-law (and has since moved on from Sutter Home), she started Purple Cowboy winery, which donates 10 percent of its profits to TETWP.
“It proudly states on the back of each label that we support Tough Enough To Wear Pink and the fight against breast cancer,” she says.
Wheatley also believes that TETWP plays an important role in highlighting the softer and caring side of the rodeo community—something that can be overlooked during all of the action and excitement at performances. Even though cowboys are known for being macho, they will gladly let their guard down for the well-being of the women in their lives.
Horses for Heroes & New Mexico, Inc. Cowboy Up! – Santa Fe, N.M. 505-798-2535, www.horsesforheroes.org
During last summer’s raging wildfires, Rick Iannucci, founder of Horses for Heroes, temporarily boarded up to a dozen horses at his Crossed Arrows Ranch near Santa Fe, N.M. It’s just one example of the generous and helping spirit that inspired Iannucci to start Horses for Heroes in 2009. He had been working with a local 4-H club, when he received a call from a woman in the area who worked with disabled children.
Iannucci remembers: “She called me and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a veteran on hand, and you’re the only Green Beret and cowboy I know. Could you maybe see if we could get this guy horseback?’”
Iannucci was inspired and began reaching out to more veterans with disabilities and had them work in conjunction with 4-H riders. He also started a “cowboy camp,” where in-patient veterans from the VA hospital were invited to come work with horses for eight-week sessions. After that first camp, one of the veterans kept returning and eventually joined Iannucci at working cattle for the neighboring Bonanza Creek Ranch. The positive impact on that veteran made Iannucci realize that the focus of Horses for Heroes needed to be on more than just horsemanship and riding skills. So he started the unique Cowboy Up! therapy program, which gets veterans involved with ranch work. Soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or combat trauma discover a road to healing via non-judgmental, gentle partnerships with horses.
Ranch work is a safe, focused way to wind down after combat. And for soldiers who have seen some of the longest deployments in history, Iannucci has also found that the transition from the military lifestyle to the Cowboy Way is natural for veterans. The physical and emotional discipline required to care for cattle and horses is somewhat similar to qualities that veterans draw on for military service.
“We give these guys and gals a new mission, and that’s important,” says Iannucci. “These are mission-oriented folks. When they return from combat, the sudden shift from being Joe-Bad-Ass Marine can feel like becoming a nobody in their minds.” Horses for Heroes gives access to a team, and a communal feeling is built between the veterans and staff. In addition to riding and ranch work, participants see movies together, attend rodeos, and share meals.
Iannucci likens this to “mission training,” which relaxes the new riders and helps them relate to working cattle. He also encourages soldiers to orient their combat patrol experience to looking for strays.
“I’ll say, ‘Go work that little draw there and make sure there’s no mamas and babies laying down there.’ So they go out, and come back exactly where they left the formation, so to speak,” he says.
In other words, this training helps veterans transform military skills into new skills for the next stage of their lives, whatever that may be.
“We’re going to take those skills and show you how to apply them to something as obtuse or counterintuitive in your mind as jumping on a horse and wading into a herd of cows,” Iannucci explains. “Then, once they feel that, it’s like, ‘Dang, I can do just about anything.’”