A frantic father rushed to a guest service booth at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo last year, desperate for his 5-year-old daughter.
He had gone to the bathroom thinking his wife was watching the baby, rodeo staff recalled. Her wife thought that the girl had gone with her father. Terror and panic filled them as they reached the booth.
Then came the news. The child had been found safe, in a nearby spot with volunteers. The father ran to her daughter, took her in his arms and sobbed.
“When dad grabbed that kid, I don’t know if there was a dust storm or what, but there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” said Sharon Garrett, chair of the rodeo’s stewardship and care committee.
Each year, hundreds of children are separated from their families during the rodeo, which lasts all Sunday. The three-week event attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. That means lots of kids. Last year, more than 250 children were lost, then reunited with their families, Garrett said.
And Garrett’s committee volunteers are ready.
A quick way to make sure you find your child quickly is to plan ahead, Garrett said. When you first arrive at the event, approach an information booth. There, volunteers will give you a neon green bracelet for your child. Write your child’s name and your mobile phone number on it. This gives people a quick way to reach out to you if there’s a problem.
Volunteers are specifically trained in how to handle lost children, Garrett said.
They ask the children questions and write down the information on a form. They don’t offer the kids anything but water due to potential allergies. They cover up their tattoos and piercings, in case they scare the child.
Volunteers hop on their walkie-talkie system and notify their team that a child has been found, providing a description of the young person and – if they have any – the parents.
Then, until that child is reunited with his guardian, there is radio silence.
Parents are often in touch with their children within minutes. But volunteers don’t just deliver them. A driver’s license or official ID must be provided so the rodeo has a record of who took the child, Garrett said. No one under 18 can take custody.
If reunification does not take place quickly, the child is taken to room 102B, on the ground floor of the NRG Centre. The kids are stationed in a room with toys and videos. A volunteer supervises constantly. Cameras record everything that happens.
Garrett can’t remember a time when a child went unclaimed.
“Thank God we brought them all together,” he said.