The Kansas City Star – Ling Mae-Wong

Scarborough Elementary students got a taste of the Wild West this week from a real Texas cowgirl.

“We’re going to talk about being tough, but not fighting tough,” said Connie Sparkman of Waco. “It’s about being tough in your heart and doing what’s right.”

She competed in rodeos and has the prize-winning belt buckles to prove it. With a 3-inch buckle on her jeans-clad waist and a black cowboy hat on her head, she described barrel riding in a rodeo.

But Sparkman wasn’t in Olathe to brag to the students. Her talk Wednesday was part of the Cowboy and Kids’ Rodeo Education and Children (REACh) program aimed to teach life lessons from the rodeo ring. The program was sponsored by the American Royal and will go to 12 schools in the Kansas City area.

“The students learn about morals, values and the importance of agriculture,” said Kevin Heikes, vice president of operations for the American Royal Association.

He estimates 4,000 students will see Sparkman’s rodeo presentation, complete with photos, banners and props.

“The cowboy seems to grab attention,” Sparkman said.

As she held up horse splint boots, similar to shin guards, the students crowded to get a better look.

Several assisted with presentations, with a student riding a “horse,” or stool, to demonstrate bareback riding technique. Another put on a shock-absorbing vest for bull riding.

First-grader Kaedyn Krizek found out just how much preparation was needed for a rodeo.

“They wear a lot of stuff,” she said. Kaedyn wants to be a cowgirl.

Heather Wilson, a fifth-grader, learned that a bull rider has to stay on for eight seconds to qualify.

“It’s intense,” she said.

Sparkman explained the point system for each event, telling the students they were judges.

“When you go to a rodeo, you can share what cowboys and cowgirls do,” Sparkman said.

After describing the death-defying stunts, she encouraged students to be as courageous.

She told the students her daughters Stormy and Dusty didn’t give in to peer pressure.

“In middle school, their friends changed,” Sparkman said.

Some friends started attending unsupervised parties with drug and alcohol abuse, she said.

“My girls knew to reach into their hearts and leave those friends,” Sparkman said.

She addressed the sixth-graders getting ready to go to junior high school.

“Make your own path,” Sparkman said. “If you do, you’ll never get in drugs or gangs.”

When she sees students in gangs come “bebopping” in, she isn’t impressed.

“You know what I call them? I call them chickens,” Sparkman said. “Why does it take three or four of them to beat up one person?”

She told the students to be leaders, not followers.

Sparkman held up some chaps for the students to see.

“A month after my husband gave them to me, he was killed in a car wreck,” she said.

Instead of giving in to despair, Sparkman chose to “cowboy up,” or face her problems with determination.

“So many kids go through things like that,” she said. Sparkman raised her girls as a single mother.

She urged the students to be their best.

“You are designed to be a winner,” Sparkman said. “You can be a champion even if you’re not a cowboy or cowgirl.”