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5-Year-Old Makes Ag Days 'Worthwhile'

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, April 13, 2018

This is not the story I intended to write. When I drove to St. Joseph County 4-H Fairgrounds in South Bend last Friday to cover the annual Ag Days event, I expected to encounter a throng of excited children passing through the various ex-hibits, petting the farm animals and having a merry time.

The event encourages the children to "harvest" apples, wool and other farm commodities and then "sell" them at a "market" where they receive "payment" for the goods they have harvested. The payment comes in the form of a pint of milk and two cookies.

All of that did happen, and that is what I expected to write about.

But then a 5-year-old girl named Willow walked into the exhibit space with her father, and my plans changed.

Willow, who was born blind, has been coming to Ag Days for the past three years, each time accompanied by one of her parents. This year, she came with her father, Daniel Townsend of Elkhart.

Dennis Jackson and Cheryl Bromley, both of the St. Joseph County Ag Team, which organizes Ag Days, quickly told me that this girl was special. Cheryl remembered her from last year. And also from the year before.

Willow has been com-ing to Ag Days for the past three years, and, during her first visit in 2016, Bromley remembers seeing her face light up when she touched a farm animal for the very first time.

The young child was guided by her father first to a pen holding a couple of donkeys. Bromley described what Willow could not see: the color of the animal's fur, wheth-er it was male or female and other details. At times, Willow asked questions and interjected her own observa-tions.

Later on, Cheryl told me that she looks forward to Willow's visit every year.

"To me, it's heart-warming to see the smile on a child's face," she said, adding, "If you can touch a child like this, then that's what makes Ag Days worthwhile."

Daniel led his daughter to another exhibit and read for her the signs and posters that described the cycle of water.

I interrupted their visit and asked if I could write about Willow's Ag Day experience. Daniel said, "Sure."

I told him that I would shadow them for a little while so I could take pictures. My first instinct was to get the facts: the girl's name and age, her father's name and their home town. He then explained why they like coming to St. Joseph County Ag Days: This is one of the few events in which Willow can learn by touching.

The agricultural event features farm animals like donkeys, sheep, goats, horses, rabbits, poultry and dairy cattle, as well as various other exhibits like farm machinery, corn husking and electrical safety. It takes a good part of an hour for a parent to guide their children through the displays while learning as they go.

Willow and her father moved at an understandably slower pace, and, as I began taking pictures, I wondered if the blind child was actually learning more than some of the children who moved through more quickly and without the one-on-one instruction.

I can't answer that question, but I am left with the impression that agriculture is something that must be experienced to be understood. Far too many people drive by farms at 55 miles per hour and only notice the obvious. They may never appreciate the special bond that exists between the farmer and his or her animals. They also may never perceive the satisfaction that comes from a day of hard work.

When Willow came to the goat display, she petted a Pygmy goat held by Laisa Beebe, a 4-H goat club member. Willow wanted to know if the goat was a girl or a boy (it was a girl) as well as its name. Sensing the goat was a little nervous, she leaned her head toward the animal and said in an assuring voice, "It's alright, girl."

The Elkhart girl then moved to a pen holding a Boer goat owned by Gretch-en Keen, a 4-H leader and 13-year veteran of Ag Days. She took Willow in her arms and allowed her to feel the ani-mal's back, head and horns.

Willow and her father spent a lot of time with Gretchen, just getting to know the animal and asking lots of questions.

As Willow and her father moved on to other Ag Day exhibits, I approached Gretchen and asked her for her reaction.

"That's what I live for—doing stuff like that," Gretchen told me. She added, "It gives you a new outlook on life when you get to help the kids and teach people with a disability."

As we talked, I was surprised by how my own emotions were stirring deep inside me. I'm no softy, but that innocent little 5-year-old girl affected me in a special way. Gretchen went on to say that "there really is good in the world," and I would agree. Too often, we look at agriculture from a business perspective and forget the human aspect. In this case, ordinary people like Gretchen Keen, Cheryl Bromley and other 4-H'ers and farmers all rose to a higher level. They allowed a child to see the beauty of agriculture through their eyes.

Those who facilitated the experience were blessed for having done it. I was on the fringe and felt privileged.

I have covered countless Ag Days over the years, but this one was special because of a lit-tle girl named Willow.

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