Making County Fair Experiences Possible for All 4-H Youth

4-H Clover

The dark haired 4-H member, with exhibitor number P67 pinned to his shirt, waited patiently beside his rabbit pens. Blake Peck was about to show one of his rabbits and this was a big step for him.

The temperature soared at the Washington County Fair and the dozen or so rabbit exhibitors were settling their nerves, waiting their turn at the judge’s table and passing time in idle conversation. Blake, a Lime Creek Livewires 4-H club member, faced the added challenge of carrying wiggling rabbits from the pens to the judge’s table with his unsteady gait and weaker left arm. This year he would show five rabbits, without the help of 4-H mentors he had at his side the first two years he showed.
Across the fairgrounds, 11-year-old Sophie Sojka was preparing to enter the horse show ring as a first year 4-H’er. Her preparation, like that of the other Junior Showmanship Class exhibitors, was based on several months of weekly practice sessions with 4-H horse project club volunteers. Now with shirt tucked in, horse’s mane braided and family encouragement all around, she gathered enough confidence to walk through the gate beside Smoky, her horse.

To make this the best experience possible, Sophie’s preparation on this day also included a bit of time in a quiet, calming place and a seat under a shade tree with cold air blowing on her – both helped to quiet the additional stressors associated with her autism.

4-H offers a place to grow

Casey and Ben Peck, Blake’s parents, and Abby and Grant Sojka, Sophie’s parents, understand the value 4-H can bring to a young person’s life. They were 4-H members and know that confidence, responsibility, respect and communication skills are learned through the 4-H experience, things they want for Blake and Sophie.
The Pecks and Sojkas want to nudge their children out of their comfort zones. They tell how 4-H and county fair volunteers create a safe environment where there are caring adults and social gatherings with other kids who have similar interests. It makes pushing them toward loftier goals like county fair possible.
The parents have taken extra steps to communicate with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach staff and fair volunteers in Washington County about accommodations that will provide an environment where their children can participate safely.
“We knew nothing about showing rabbits when he started, so Blake had older 4-H’ers as mentors to teach him care and grooming, and help him at the fair,” said Casey Peck. “The rabbit superintendent helps him in so many ways and keeps an attentive eye on him. If Blake’s rabbits get unruly, the other exhibitors lend him a hand. It is an amazing team of people that are willing to help him in every way possible.”
County fair time is the busiest time of year for ISU Extension and Outreach county 4-H staff and volunteers across Iowa. All 99 counties have county fairs, with most of Iowa’s more than 23,000 enrolled 4-H club members exhibiting one or more entries – animals, projects and presentations – at a county fair.
“You bet county fair is busy, with all the people, projects and animals all coming together in one place for a week, but it is an incredibly rewarding time as well,” said Amy Green, Washington County 4-H and youth coordinator. “This is the time that 4-H’ers, new and experienced, get a chance to present and show everything they have learned. We want them to be just a little bit better every time they step into the show ring, finish a project or make a presentation.”

Community of caring adults important to 4-H experience

When a 4-H member needs accommodations to exhibit at fair, Green said communication is the key. First it is important that parents let the 4-H leader or a county extension staff member know that the child needs extra support. Working with the parents, Green and staff are able to communicate with the correct group of volunteers to share the child’s specific needs and accommodations with those who need to know.
Green said that county staff have access to ISU Extension and Outreach regional directors, state 4-H specialists and extension equality specialist Sean Nelson, housed in the Office of Equal Opportunity, to make sure request forms are completed and all necessary steps are taken to serve the child’s needs.
“Sometimes the accommodation is simply working with the judge or livestock superintendent ahead of fair; other times it is giving kids a little extra time for certain tasks, or having a few extra hands on deck,” said Green. “In the beef department, Sophie can have a 4-H mentor in the show ring with her and her market steer. They are learning to communicate and support each other on what will be a super important day in the show ring.”
A mentor, a conversation with a superintendent or judge, extra pairs of hands around the show ring or help getting to the judging table are actions that make a difference to a child who otherwise would not be able to participate fully in 4-H as a fair exhibitor.
“Grant and I never thought Sophie would be able to show a steer or horse. We thought it was pretty far-fetched,” said Abby Sojka, Sophie’s mother. “Over the years she has shown us she loves the animals, really connects with them. Our hope is that with Sophie being out there this year that other kids will see that it’s OK to have support.”
Casey Peck calls it a community that rallies behind her child every step of the way.
“Accommodations mean so many things to so many people; 4-H is a place where we are one amazing group and accommodations big or small is what determines the journey. This journey is rewarding and amazing, but also full of its challenges and not always easy,” she said.
Peck has a message for any parent who has a child with special needs. “Put them in 4-H and allow them the opportunity to experience something amazing. There are new friends to meet and an amazing journey to take,” Peck said.
To learn more about enrolling in Iowa 4-H, contact a county extension office. There are 100 county extension offices in Iowa; one in every county, two in Pottawattamie County.

Blake Peck, member of the Lime Creek Livewires 4-H club, is all smiles as his rabbits are about to be judged during the Washington County Fair.
Sophie Sojka takes her love of animals one step further as she works alongside her 4-H mentor Taylor Brinning to show Sonic, a market steer, at the Washington County Fair.

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