What started as a simple idea has now grown far beyond expectations, proving that sometimes dreams do come true.
“We wanted to raise awareness of pediatric cancer – cancer in children – and the battle facing these children and their families,” said Tina Tonascia, the chief operations officer of the Elks Recreation Committee (Elks Rec).
The Elks were champions of Lexi Brown, a Santa Maria girl who lost her battle with cancer at the age of 12, in May of 2016.
“We wanted to honor her and her family,” said Tonascia. “And we wanted to do something to help other local families in the fight to save their children’s lives — to provide both emotional and financial support.”
From that, the Golden Circle of Champions was born.
Olivia and Keith Bugal are the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo Parade grand marshals – and they are both rocket scientists.
“In the first Elks Rodeo after Lexi’s passing (in June of 2016), we brought in 25 kids and their families on opening night,” said Tonascia. “We gave them the VIP treatment – a special dinner cooked up by Bill Ostini and his folks from the Hitching Post (in Casmalia), gave them cowboy hats, buckles, and ropes.
"They got to meet a bunch of the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls and had their own special section to watch the rodeo ringside in the arena.
“We were also able to donate $1,000 to each family – money they could use in any way that would help them out.”
But Elks Rec wasn’t done.
“We brought it back the next year, and the next,” said Tonascia.
And it keeps going and growing.
“This is so exciting,” said Tonascia. “We thought ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if one or two rodeos started their own Golden Circle of Champions programs?’
“Well, one or two did, and then more rodeos heard about it and started their own Golden Circles. Then the NFR (National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas) got on board and made it a part of the NFR last year. This year it’s really exploded."
Two dozen rodeos across the country are now holding Golden Circle of Champion fundraisers and a Golden Circle night.
“It’s all a bit overwhelming. More and more rodeos are coming aboard every year,” said Tonascia. “Most amazing is how the competitors – the cowboys and cowgirls — continue to embrace these kids.
“The children are each paired with their own cowboy/cowgirl champions. They don’t just meet them at the rodeo, have dinner with them, and sign a few autographs. They are really staying in touch, continuing to be a part of these kids’ lives. It’s just awesome. One of the main reasons the program has grown is the commitment of the cowboys and cowgirls. They really are embracing the Golden Circle and it gives these children an opportunity to embrace the Western lifestyle. They make the experience pretty special."
The NFR’s first Golden Circle go-round brought in 20 children and their families – 10 from the Las Vegas area and the other 10 (two each from five different rodeos including Santa Maria) from around the country.
“Rodeo committees from all across the country either attend the NFR in person or watch it on TV. That really gave the Golden Circle of Champions national exposure. It’s done so much for the program. I never expected it to grow like this – and so fast,” Tonascia said.
Elks Rec is able to keep its expenses to a bare minimum because almost everything is donated and all the work is done by volunteers.
“Bill Ostini and his Hitching Post crew are just one example,” said Tonascia. “They serve about 300 dinners each year to feed the kids, their families, the cowboys, and cowgirls, the rodeo crew, and local dignitaries.”
“When you add it all up, it’s really a huge crowd,” said the Hitching Post's Terry Stricklin.
“And then there are people like Dustin Noblitt (the president and chief executive officer of the Pro Equine Group, Inc. and RHE Hat-Co., which makes Stetson and Resistol hats, and Cactus Ropes among their many American-made products) who donates hats and ropes, and all the sponsors.
"Really, there are too many to name them all – they are key to the Golden Circle’s success,” said Tonascia.
“And the volunteers. We have to mention the volunteers,” said Elks Rec President Peter Sterling. “We have people working on the program all year – all volunteers. They have such big hearts and are all ready to jump in and help us with anything we need.”
More than $125,000 has been donated to local families since the Golden Circle program began in 2016, helping kids as young as three months old up to the age of 17.
A special Cowboy Up Carnival will be held this year to raise money for the Golden Circle.
It replaces the Casino Night held the last several rodeos.
“The Cowboy Up Carnival will be on Saturday, June 3, from 2:30 to 6 p.m. (ending right before the night’s third rodeo performance begins),” said Tonascia. “Tickets are $50 each or $500 for a table of 10 with dinner included. You should get your tickets now because they are going fast.”
The tickets can be purchased online at goldencircleofchampions.com.
And during each of the four rodeo performances, Elks Rec will "Pass the Boot" with cowboy boots circulating through the stands for people to drop donations in to benefit the Golden Circle.
“This is about the kids and their families,” said Tonascia. “Our goal is to bring the much-needed education and awareness, locally and nationally, to pediatric cancer and offer a ray of hope to the families. They need our help as a community, and we want them to know we are here for them.
“And we want to give the kids and families a magical night so they can take one day off from thinking about doctors and hospitals.”