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From game show to sanctuary, animals and children get second chance

Wheel ... of ... Fortune

Wheel of Fortune Ranch owner Donna Penley talks about how after losing her home in the Haysville tornado, she entered the "Wheel of Fortune" game show and won more than $20,000 to put down on a ranch. Along with her friend Keith Henderson, they bo
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Wheel of Fortune Ranch owner Donna Penley talks about how after losing her home in the Haysville tornado, she entered the "Wheel of Fortune" game show and won more than $20,000 to put down on a ranch. Along with her friend Keith Henderson, they bo

Donna Penley’s good heart and bad eyes brought her to the Wheel of Fortune Ranch.

It started with a wish and a dream, and it took many years and some misfortune to get her there.

But Penley, who is legally blind, has overcome all of that to create a thriving animal rescue sanctuary while also working with special needs children and their families.

“I dreamed of one day owning and operating a working farm facility that would do both animals and people some good,” is how Penley described her vision on the ranch’s website.

Her journey to the ranch started May 3, 1999, when her house – along with many others in her neighborhood – was struck by what would later become known as the Haysville tornado.

It was part of a violent weather system that killed five people and injured more than 100, destroying at least 150 homes and 27 businesses.

“It totally wrecked my neighborhood,” she said. “It looked like a bomb hit. The house on each side of me were the only houses left besides mine in the neighborhood. It was so depressing.”

At about that same time, she heard that the Wheel of Fortune bus was coming to Wichita. She told her family she was going to go to Century II and get on the show.

“And they said, ‘Sure. Sure, Mom, sure,’” Penley said.

The weekend of the tryout, she said, 5,000 people lined up. Penley was among eight who were eventually chosen.

I had been losing my eyesight due to macular degeneration. I was really scared … I wouldn’t be able to see well enough to be on Wheel of Fortune.

Donna Penley, owner of the Wheel of Fortune Ranch near Haysville.

“I had qualified for Wheel of Fortune but it was going to be a year before I’d be on the show,” she said. “But I had been losing my eyesight due to macular degeneration.

“I worked in the court system for 25 years and had to leave because I couldn’t see to do my work anymore. I was really scared that in a year, I wouldn’t be able to see well enough to be on Wheel of Fortune.”

When it came time for her show appearance, Penley said she could barely see.

“I can’t stand really bright lights and, of course, the lights on the sound stage are glaring,” she said. “And so, after the first toss up for $1,000, I won and went on to the next round.

“By then, I couldn’t see. I would stand with my eyes closed.”

The board listing the show’s letters and numbers were on the ceiling – in red.

“I can’t see red,” she said. “Every time, they would call a (letter), that (letter) would go dark. Everybody knew what had been called. I had to memorize all of that.”

In the end, she ended up winning $23,300 – which she used as a down payment on her ranch.

Animal sanctuary

She sold her house in Haysville and began volunteering as a coach for handicapped children as they rode horseback. In time, Penley – a former barrel racer – built up her ranch.

And then, slowly, gently, the Wheel of Fortune Ranch turned into an animal sanctuary.

At one time, she was taking care of as many as 20 horses and 15 dogs. Now, in addition to horses and dogs, her menagerie includes numerous guineas, peafowl, ducks, 100 chickens of which 60 are roosters, rabbits, pigs and goats.

There are so many roosters, she said, because urban residents growing their own chickens for fresh eggs will sometimes end up with roosters in the mix. Most cities ban the roosters. Penley makes a home for most of them – although some are sold come winter.

“It’s just a fact of life,” she said. “I would rather they go to some family that needs something to eat than a coyote. But a lot of them will stay here.”

Connecting with kids

In the process of saving animals, the Wheel of Fortune Ranch also became a sanctuary for children, especially special needs children. The children and their families come to the ranch to take a few minutes or hours to connect with nature.

“It is more than a love of animals,” said Keith Henderson, who helps manage the ranch with Penley.

“Kids now don’t touch the bare ground with their bare feet. They don’t even have a comprehension where a chicken comes from. And, if a generation doesn’t have a connection with the planet, what hope do they have?”

The ranch provides riding lessons and allows birthday parties and family picnics on the 10-acre sanctuary, near 75th Street South and Hoover Road.

Kids now don’t touch the bare ground with their bare feet. They don’t even have a comprehension where a chicken comes from. And, if a generation doesn’t have a connection with the planet, what hope do they have.

Keith Henderson, manager of Wheel of Fortune ranch.

Henderson works with the animals and helps condition them to become comfortable around people.

“A lot of these animals don’t come here happy,” Henderson said, his voice breaking with emotion as roosters crowed in the background. “They come here a wreck. I think we have got to the point where animals are disposable.

“Kids need another option to learn something. They need to learn life.”

Penley has a mobile petting zoo she takes to local schools. It includes a Nigerian dwarf goat named Peepers, a rabbit, a donkey named Ms. Rosie and a miniature horse called Cinnamon.

“My dream is to become nonprofit and maybe get a grant or two,” said Penley, 79. “I’d like to enlarge my horse riding program for special needs kids.

“I have helmets for everybody. But I need a couple of back braces that fasten to the saddle that will enable a child to sit up.”

She also needs volunteers.

“I was very fortunate to meet Donna at the senior center,” said Colleen Folton, a volunteer.

“It’s beautiful scenery, and I get to work with animals. There is just so much work to do – even just in grooming, petting and conditioning animals.”

Penley and Henderson have an egg hatching program that includes an incubator that they take to area schools to help show the life cycle of chickens.

“The kids can hatch the chickens and then give the chicks back to us to raise and then we sell them, which enables us to do more for more schools,” she said.

“Kids don’t know where animals come from or where their food comes from. Kids don’t know the peace of just being out in the country and just being here.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

The Wheel of Fortune Ranch is located at 7560 S. Hoover Road, near Haysville.

For more information, call 316-350-5841 or visit www.wheeloffortuneranch.com

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