Merkel family honors son, helps special needs kids using wildlife

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MERKEL, Texas (KTAB/KRBC)- If you’ve never been hugged by a kangaroo, I highly recommend it. It will brighten anyone’s day.

For Jim and Brenda Nolan of Merkel, they use exotic animals to give special needs kids an unforgettable experience.

Jim, sporting a long, white handlebar moustache, was a rodeo cowboy for 23 years, until he had his son, Spencer.

However, Spencer wasn’t like every other kid. He had down syndrome, as well as several major surgeries on his knees and heart.

Spencer Nolan, courtesy of Jim Nolan

Jim said Spencer loved wild animals, so Jim did what every good father would do. He dropped everything and created “exceptional rodeos.”

He had seen through his years of traveling the country that there was not a lot available for those with special needs, and he decided to change that.

He bought wheel-chair accessible rides, including a mechanical bull, and followed shortly thereafter with animals.

“I grew up on ranches, and I always wanted a zebra, buffalo and a kangaroo,” Nolan said. “Well, I got them and just kept going.”

He saw how Spencer smiled day in and day out with the animals, and even more watching other kids and families get to be up close, pet and feed these wild animals and learn how to rope and ride.

Spencer was his inspiration, and Nolan said that had Spencer not come into his life, he would not have seen how precious the special needs kids are.

However, Spencer passed away on April 5th, 2020 at the age of 30.

Ever since, Jim and Brenda have committed to making something the state of Texas has never seen in their exceptional rodeos.

“I’m building this place in his memory.” Nolan said.

His home in Merkel, right off I-20, is becoming ‘Spencer’s Place.’ Home to anyone and everyone, where no one is left out and everyone is family.

Jim and Brenda are using Spencer’s legacy to help kids with special needs find a place full of love, involvement and where they can be hands on with some of the world’s wildest creatures.

From zebras to kangaroos, to bison and miniature fainting goats and otters, the Nolan’s have a little bit of everything.

Their homestead was furnished with pens, ready for the animals, as well as a large covered chicken coop, which they have turned into an animal showing area.

They have made their property accessible for anyone, with wheelchair ramps and other means of transportation for those who don’t move as well.

“I’m thankful he [Spencer] came along,” Nolan said. “He got me changed to look at other people’s needs more than my own.”

Jim and Brenda said they both delight in seeing the kids smile and interact with their animals, even when their big Brahman bull slobbers a young kid’s hand.

“It makes your heart smile knowing they get such a kick out of it,” Brenda said. “They’ll stomp their feet and they’ll giggle, and you know this just made their day.”

However, they are not done yet. They have done traveling shows in the past, even appearing at the West Texas Fair and Rodeo this past year.

They are looking to expand in the near future, and make ‘Spencer’s Place’ a home for everyone.

“They are so special,” Brenda said. “Just because they are different doesn’t make them any less of a child or a person.”

Which is why at the Nolan’s home, everyone is considered family. That’s why all the animals have names.

And Spencer’s legacy, his love of animals and others is carried on to help, in their words, “make us all one, big family.”

You can find more information about Rafter J Exceptional Rodeos and how to get in contact with Jim and Brenda on their Facebook page, here.

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