Child Advocacy Center receives Humanitarian Award

Published 9:15 am Wednesday, February 23, 2022

For the last four years, the Covington County Child Advocacy Center has hosted its Cowboys for Kids Rodeo at Hilltop Arena in Andalusia. All proceeds from sponsorships, vendors, and spectators go back into the CAC to fund the services it provides to local children. Recently, the Rodeo Committee learned that the Cowboys for Kids Rodeo had been named the recipient of the Professional Cowboy Association’s Humanitarian Award.

For the last three years, the CAC has contracted with Bo Campbell Rodeo Productions of Robertsdale, Alabama to bring the rodeo to town. Will Campbell, co-owner of Bo Campbell Rodeo Productions, commented, “The Humanitarian Award is given annually to a rodeo that the PCA believes makes great contributions to charity and other philanthropic efforts within its community. It’s something that supports a good cause, and to do it all for these kids, there isn’t a cause much better than that. We at Bo Campbell Rodeo Productions are proud to partner with the Covington County CAC and are honored, along with the local Rodeo Committee, that the PCA chose the Cowboys for Kids Rodeo for the Humanitarian Award. It’s well deserved.”

“With each year, the rodeo has grown and welcomed more sponsors and more people who wish to contribute in various ways filling a need in their community,” said CAC Board Chairman Walt Merrell. Nikki Stephens works as a prosecutor in Merrell’s office and developed a love for the CAC through her prosecution of crimes against children. That interest evolved into becoming part of a core team of people who plan and host the Cowboys for Kids Rodeo. “We are just thrilled to be recognized for our humanitarian efforts more than anything else, and we see this as an award given not just to our rodeo, but to the whole community that made it happen,” Stephens added.

In the Cowboys for Kids Rodeo’s second year, it became sanctioned by the Professional Cowboy Association (PCA). The late Bo Campbell co-founded the PCA and has always served as one of its main stock contractors. Will Campbell, his son and a successor to the family business, recalled traveling to Andalusia for rodeos for most of his life. “I’ve been coming to Andalusia with my dad since the mid-90s, and we’ve developed relationships with Andalusia’s hotel owners, restaurant owners, and others. We love coming here each year to produce a rodeo, and Andalusia is a place that has always welcomed us with open arms. We certainly hope the relationship continues for many years to come.”

Because of its professional sanctioning status, the rodeo attracts cowboys and cowgirls from all over the southeastern United States. Last year, following the PCA’s first sanctioning of the rodeo, it was nominated for the PCA’s New Rodeo of the Year award. According to Merrell, there’s no greater cause or a greater need for an event of this type than to benefit an organization like the CAC. The CAC serves local children who find themselves the unfortunate victims of physical or sexual abuse, or neglect. Monies raised from the rodeo and other fundraisers throughout the year are used to pay for a variety of services.

Hilltop Arena owners Kevin and Kellye Rodgers approached Merrell four years ago with a desire to host a benefit rodeo and, specifically, a desire to serve the CAC. “We love rodeo and have participated in it for most of our lives. Having our own facilities to host a rodeo just seemed like an open door to do it for a good cause, something like the CAC that contributes so much to our community. It is our way of giving back,” stated Kevin Rodgers.

Having the rodeo at Hilltop has additionally benefited the CAC by saving facility rental fees, and the expensive costs for intensive labor required to set up and take down a rodeo event, all donated by the Rodgers family.

Mindy Barton serves as the Executive Director of the CAC and is also a trained forensic interviewer. Forensic interviews are designed to be performed in such a manner that they withstand the court process and the scrutiny that comes with it. They are conducted in-house at the CAC in a room designed to make the child feel at ease with what is already a trying process. Barton noted, “We conduct these interviews in a manner to not further traumatize the child victims. Because all the interested parties are involved in the process from the beginning, we are able to identify the child’s needs and determine what services, and how best to offer them, to begin the healing process.”

Fundraiser monies are also used to provide medical exams to abuse victims. The CAC has a group of medical professionals trained in the collection of sexual assault kits and the treatment of injuries. This team is able to provide the documentation necessary for the court process, as well as address more acute medical needs, such as treatment of sexually transmitted disease or potential pregnancy. The CAC houses a medical exam room where child abuse victims can be examined locally, without creating greater travel hardships for local families. Often the emotional scars last longer than any physical wounds, so the CAC also offers counseling and play therapy services. Children are able to attend counseling and therapy appointments at the CAC, at no cost to them.

“The CAC is really designed to be a one-stop shop for any services that children who have suffered from abuse may require. It has been our desire from the beginning to find ways to fund these services, and ensure they can be provided right here at home,” stated Merrell.

Lesa Rathel worked closely alongside Merrell in founding the CAC in 2015. Other centers were located across the state, but Covington County children were having to travel to Dothan for interviews and services, and the two found that unacceptable. Rathel discussed the team of advocates that work closely with the CAC. “Once DHR or law enforcement receives a report of abuse, they must respond. Within just a day or two of that initial response – where the physical safety of the child is ensured – the child is brought in for the forensic interview. As Mindy conducts that interview, a whole team of individuals is watching in-camera from another room. Officers, DHR caseworkers, counselors, medical personnel, and prosecutors comprise a ‘multi-disciplinary team’ that works together to make decisions about how each case should progress. The child is only asked to tell their story once, as opposed to telling each team member individually. The group meets at least once per month to review all new and pending cases,” said Rathel.

The Cowboys for Kids Rodeo is the CAC’s largest fundraiser, and the committee reports overwhelming community support each year. “I am not surprised by how generous our local business owners and families can be, but it is always very humbling to see it all come together and know just how much people believe in the mission of the CAC. Nobody wants to believe these egregious crimes are happening in our county, but they are, all too often,” Merrell noted.

The next Cowboys for Kids Rodeo will again be held at Hilltop Arena this fall and the committee is already hard at work making plans. Merrell concluded, “While we aren’t hosting a rodeo for the accolades, being recognized for the rodeo’s philanthropic efforts reaffirm for us why we do what we do, and we will continue for years to come. Some professional rodeos come to town to raise a bunch of money from local sponsors, only to haul that money back to their own communities. Who would want to stand in the way of financially supporting ‘the least of these’ right here at home? We appreciate all our sponsors, donors, and volunteers for standing in the gap with us, and appreciate you keeping your support here in Covington County.”