When Sam Burt was born eight weeks premature on May 31, 1993, it took just days for the doctors to discover the chromosomal anomalies that had only been documented in five other cases throughout the world. Now, 30 years later and a decade since his March passing, Sam remains a beacon of change and inspiration for people of all abilities.
“I try not to let the day hold the power,” said Sam’s mom, Deborah, of the 10-year milestone. “Some days it does and, some days, it doesn’t.”
Putting a Posse Together
Deborah shifts the conversation to the founding of Sam’s Posse in 2015—the non-profit she and her husband Buck operate with the mission “to create accessible and inclusive activities and play spaces for individuals of all abilities.”
“It keeps his legacy alive. It keeps his memory alive. It keeps people asking about him and then I get to share that he had significant disabilities, and we couldn’t go to a playground that he could play on. We didn’t have an accessible bike he could ride.
“Now, we’re fortunate enough to have recognized that and to make change,” Deborah continued. “And, slowly, we’re seeing [accessibility] in our city parks. Not to the degree that it should be, but it’s starting to happen.”
In Sam’s days, the Burts had an incredible medical team to help them navigate the dozens of surgeries and procedures the young cowboy would endure. They also had the roping community, which Buck had long been a part of since his Texas upbringing and remained involved with throughout his career in California’s golf industry.
[READ: Look for the Helpers]
“The team roping community has always been so supportive of our family and of Sam and, now Sam’s Posse,” Deborah emphasized. “We’re very grateful to them for all the support they’ve given to us over the years. Not just our non-profit; just our family, in general.”
Sam, the Man
When the Burts did go to ropings together, it looked different than how most get to do it—eating hot dogs in the stands and roping dummies in the parking lot.
“He had no verbal skills, so it was often challenging,” Deborah said as an example of Sam’s abilities. “We kind of modified a homemade living quarters, so he could take a nap and I could prepare his meals and that sort of thing. We just made it work, wherever we had to go.”
Then, Deborah described a young man we’d all have been lucky to meet and who, really, was just like so many boys we already know.
“He had a great sense of humor. He liked to go to his therapeutic riding program—a lot. Um, I think he liked the girls that were the helpers more than he liked the horse situation.”
[LEARN MORE: Directory of Therapeutic Riding Centers]
Deborah explained that Sam, though verbally challenged, possessed good receptive skills and communicated through sign language and with computer-generated devices. And, like the best cowboys in the business, he was game for all of it.
“He enjoyed school and he was always up for anything, game for any adventure,” Deborah said of her son who developed a sincere love for LegoLand. “It always amazed me because he could come home from having a 10-hour cranial-facial surgery and it was like, nothing. Like, ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to school today? Are we going to LegoLand?’”
Be the Change
Today, the Burts are following Sam’s lead.
“He was always just so resilient and just amazing and a huge inspiration,” Deborah marveled. “For me, it’s like, if he could do that, I can do this. I’ll just always hold that as an inspiration.”
In 2019, Sam’s Posse partnered with September’s Poway (Cali.) Rodeo to host the inaugural Sam’s Posse Round-Up Rodeo—an event that takes the best parts of rodeo and makes them accessible for members of the community who might not otherwise get to enjoy a traditional rodeo setup.
The event goes beyond a day in the arena, though. Deborah explains that, for many with cognitive challenges, creating an expectation—even visually—can play a monumental role in a person’s ability to experience something new. So, Sam’s Posse provides what are called “social stories,” complete with images of what a person will see on the day of the Round-Up Rodeo, like a modified mechanical bucking horse or a draft team pulling a wagon.
The Poway Rodeo’s Arena Director, Darci Van Meter, attests to Sam’s Posse’s foresight and planning.
“I wish more rodeos would get them involved and be aware of everything that they do,” she said. “They do all the work. They’re wonderful. They take care of everything. The people are happy, the kids are happy and it’s just fun to watch.”
In addition to putting on the Round-Up, the Poway Rodeo also put tips jars out in its bars for the weekend to help fund a $5,000 adaptive bike for a kiddo named Matthew.
“All of the tips from the bars funded an entire bike, and it’s a two-day rodeo,” Deborah exclaimed. “We just presented that bike and the whole neighborhood turned out. It was awesome.”
For the Kids
Van Meter echoed Deborah’s excitement.
“That’s one thing I do want to get out there,” she stated. “I want to thank all of our patrons because they were so generous at the bar. People would buy an $8 cocktail and they’d give me $20 as a tip. I’d look at them and they were like, ‘It’s for the kids.’”
“It’s for the kids,” is in lockstep with why the Poway Rodeo looks forward to a continued partnership with Sam’s Posse.
“It gives us an outlet to the community and also to help kids through people who care,” Van Meter emphasized. “And hopefully it shows that Poway Rodeo cares about the kids and the people in our community.”
In 2021, a local Ugly Sweater jackpot had similar success funding an adaptive bike (which are classified as “recreational” by insurance companies and, therefore, aren’t covered).
“It was a huge success,” Deborah said. “They raised $7,000, and most of the winners donated their winnings back to us.”
The Ugly Sweater jackpot had scheduling conflicts in 2022, but plans are already in the works for a December 2023 iteration. TRJ