With autism becoming more and more prevalent in society, projects and programs dedicated to providing support and acceptance to autistic children and adults are becoming more crucial than ever.

This fall, country and rock music fans have the opportunity to come together in the Northwoods at a two-day music festival to support the cause, and enjoy some of the best music country and rock have to offer.

“I started talking with the Scholl Community Impact Group about a year ago, and they were talking about equine therapy for autism,” event organizer Lee Simanek said. “And Eric (Mikoleit, Lakeland STAR School/Academy director) came up to me in the parking lot at Trig’s and said, ‘Lee, we need a heated arena,’ and I’m committed to putting this program together.”

While the benefit concert runs simultaneously with Fall Ride, Simanek said the concert was not in partnership with the Tomahawk Fall Ride, which raises awareness for the Muscular Distrophy Association.

Simanek said the concert had a “pretty good lineup.”

Starting Friday, Sept. 13, the Country Rocks Autism event will kick off with a country lineup filled with talented musicians.

The Jagwire Country Band will kick off the festival at 12:30 p.m., with Joe Wright and the Lee Walker Show to follow at 2:30 and 4 p.m. Then, Nashville musician Natalie Murphy will take the stage at 6 p.m.

Barron, Wisconsin’s own Chris Kroeze of “The Voice” will follow at 6:30 p.m., opening for headliner Mo Pitney at 8:30 p.m.

The concert continues on Saturday with a full day of rock music beginning with the Whitehouse Players out of Wausau playing from 1 to 2:30 p.m., followed by the Bobby Friss Band from 3 to 4:45 p.m.

“He’s a Harley Davidson fan favorite,” Simanek said, referring to Friss. “He plays rock from the ’60s through ’80s cover songs, and he’s at the state fair, he’s at Summerfest, he’s at the Harley Davidson ride in Oconomowoc.”

Simanek said The Whitehouse players were also a local favorite.

Following the Bobby Friss Band is Storm, a local band out of Tomahawk, from 5:15 to 7 p.m.

Finally, Brian Howe, previously the lead singer of Bad Company, will take the stage from 7:30 to 9 p.m. 

“The goal is to have a successful fundraiser through the Howard Young Foundation, which will benefit autism, and our goal is to build a heated arena with classrooms and bathrooms for the equine therapy associated with the charter school in Minocqua,” Simanek said. “The arena would be up in Winchester as part of the Scholl Community Impact Group.”

“We offer equine-assisted therapy and we work with all kinds of disabilities with horses,” Scholl Community Impact Group director Lenelle Scholl said.

Working closely with the surrounding counties, the Scholl Community Impact Group benefits students from the Lakeland STAR Academy Charter School and Lakeland Union High School, as well as students from Arbor-Vitae Woodruff Elementary and the Minocqua J1 School District.

Scholl said 95% of their students have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“People are recognizing just how much working with horses and learning to ride benefits people with special needs,” Scholl said.

Equine therapy, Scholl said, enables students to become stronger, more confident, as well as teaching them confidence, discipline, teamwork, and social skills.

“It teaches them to work hard and not give up,” Scholl said.

One of the hurdles faced by the Scholl Community Group is they have to stop teaching once it starts getting too cold, because it’s too cold to ride in the arena.

“We want to get funding to build a heated indoor arena so the kids can ride year round,” Scholl said. “The Country Rocks Autism event is to benefit that program, as well as other programs.”

The Country Rocks Autism benefit concert will not only benefit the Scholl Community Impact Group, but also the Howard Young Foundation Autism Services Fund in providing resources and services related to ASD.

“We’re hoping to support children and adults with autism in our community,” donor relations and communications for The Howard Young Foundation Elizabeth Gering said.

The Howard Young Foundation created their autism services fund in 2017 to support a growing need for resources and services related to ASD in the community.

Simanek thanked all the organizations involved in bringing the Country Rocks Autism benefit concert to life. 

“Everybody has been absolutely phenomenal to work with,” Simanek said.

Country Rocks Autism is sponsored by The Lakeland Times, Northwoods River News, Minocqua Lions, Bud Light, WRLO Rock 105.3, Kool 95.9, 100.1 Jack FM, WHDG 97.9, and the Scholl Community Impact Group.

“Gregg was very instrumental in putting this together,” Simanek said, referring to Lakeland Times publisher Gregg Walker.

The benefit concert will take place at Bonnie & Clyde’s Gangster Park in Harshaw with tickets available now at countryrocksautism.eventbrite.com, as well as the front office of The Lakeland Times. Advance tickets are $30 for one day, and $50 for both. All proceeds from the concert will benefit Northwoods autism projects.

Kayla Houp may be reached via email at kaylah@lakelandtimes.com.