Exhibiting hogs shows how ‘Autism Tough’ these children can be

On the final day of the Venango County Fair — one that was declared as “Autism Tough Day” — it seemed fitting that a featured event was one in which every child participant was able to take home a blue ribbon.

About a dozen kids, all of whom have autism, were given the opportunity by Autism Tough, a Knox-based nonprofit, and the Venango County Fair to exhibit hogs in Phillips Arena in front of family members, friends and anyone else who arrived at the fair early Saturday morning.

“At the end of the day,” Autism Tough’s and 4-H member Holly Weaver said shortly before the event began, “everybody’s a winner.”

Accompanied by the hogs and their 4-H volunteer mentors, the children of various ages were split into groups, with each group taking its turn to enter the arena after the previous one exited.

Some of the kids just couldn’t help but constantly smile and look around for adult approval, as they guided the animals by tapping them with whips under the watchful eyes of their mentors.

For other kids, it was clear this was serious business, as their eyes were fixated on the hogs the entire time after entering the ring.

This was the second year in which Autism Tough, which serves and advocates for autistic children and their families in both Venango and Clarion counties, and the fair have put on the event, which is called “Bacon Buddies.”

Autism Tough’s objective through “Bacon Buddies” is to give the children exhibiting the hogs a feeling of “inclusiveness within 4-H, along with the hope they will want to join,” said Weaver, whose son McKinley, who will turn 15 in September, was one of the exhibitors.

That “inclusiveness” was further emphasized by simple questions asked to the children by judge Kay Brockett while she walked along and spoke with them as they exhibited the animals.

“I will ask them things like ‘Are you enjoying yourself?’ and ‘Do you know the weight of your hog?’’’ Brockett said before the first group of children and mentors entered the ring.

Emlenton resident and 4-H volunteer Gretchen Kralj said the idea of getting “special needs” kids involved with such an event was one that was picked up on from the Midwest.

“The Iowa pork producers started this in 2018 at the Iowa State Fair,” she said. “They were doing it with special needs kids and were paired with Special Olympics.”

The thought of doing the same event at the Venango County Fair, she said, “came from watching the 2019 Iowa State Fair ‘Bacon Buddies’ show; then my husband, Rick, said, ‘We need to bring this back to Venango County.’’’

After the local attempts to partner with Special Olympics didn’t come to fruition, Kralj said that’s when she decided to reach out to Autism Tough, “and they really stepped up.”

Participation in such an event, according to Weaver, helps to fulfill the sensory needs of autistic children. The choice of hogs over other livestock, Brockett said, has much to do with both the size of the animal and its demeanor.

“Steers are just too large at 1,200 pounds,” Brockett said, “and you don’t know what the kid is going to do. Hogs are responsive and let kids play with them. Goats and sheep tend to jump, and there are more hogs available than sheep or goats.”

Franklin resident Erin Gent Kelly was there with her husband, Jubal, to watch and support their 12-year-old son, Jack, exhibit a hog. As Jack walked with and guided his animal, he was one of those kids who had that serious look on his face.

He “loves animals” and wanted to take part because he knew it would be fun, Kelly said.

And, the fun — along with a feeling of fulfillment — aren’t just for the children exhibiting the animals.

Bre Pritts, a 15-year-old 4-H member from Kennerdell, got involved this year after her sister did so last year.

“It was fun,” she said after the event, “and it makes me feel good to help the kids.”

According to Knox resident Robin Schick, a 4-H leader and whose 7-year-old son, Wyatt, was an exhibitor, there was no shortage of volunteers.

In all, she said, there were 54 members of 4-H who signed up, including her two older sons, 21-year-old Robert and 16-year-old Garrett.

Aside from providing the kids an avenue to have fun while learning more about the pork industry, Brockett said there is another equally large need that is filled through “Bacon Buddies.”

“Some of these kids may be nonverbal,” and this could help, the judge said. “We want to provide a safe environment, where they can try something new and take them out of their comfort zone.”

It’s a goal that is in line with Autism Tough’s mission statement — “creating a better world through kindness and acceptance.”

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