ALEXANDRIA, Ind. —
Kaylee Dunham won second- and third-place ribbons in sheep competitions this week at the Madison County 4-H Fair. But she also won admiration for her first.
“I am not aware of anybody else who has exhibited in a wheelchair before” at the fair’s livestock competitions, said Madison County Extension Director Gary Simmons. “I think she did a fantastic job.”
Kaylee, 10, has cerebral palsy related to her premature birth. Her father, Jim Dunham of Summitville, said that when she got the opportunity to work with animals, she soon showed that she was a natural.
“She loved it and thought it was great,” Dunham said of Kaylee’s performance in the ring on Wednesday. “She just had a blast and really enjoyed it.” Kaylee also participated in Thursday evening’s livestock sale.
“It was really nice getting to be in the fair, because at first there was barely anything for me to do,” Kaylee said. “It’s been a real good time at the fair because it’s been wonderful for me.”
Kaylee said she hopes that her participation in the fair gives others the same opportunity. “In my mind, I was really thanking the people who let me do this,” she said.
Jim Dunham said Kaylee probably would not have had the chance to participate in the fair if it had not been for a chance encounter at the fair last year. Dunham, Kaylee, her older sister Deanna and younger brother Harley were at the fair when Shane Ashton walked over.
Ashton wanted to start a 4-H club for children with special needs, and had gotten sponsorship from his employer, Carter Lumber. Ashton recalled Dunham saying “‘Kaylee was dying to show something.’ I raise sheep, and I’ve always got extra sheep that need somebody to show them.”
Ashton and his daughters Beth and Sicily worked with Kaylee, and they said she was enthusiastic about everything from feeding and washing the animals to learning the finer points of showmanship.
“Anytime we wanted to walk the lambs or anything like that, she wanted to be right there,” Sicily Ashton said.
At the fair, either Sicily or Beth Ashton pushed Kaylee’s wheelchair into the show ring, but then it was up to Kaylee to handle the halter and show the animals in the same manner as any other 4-H’er.
“I don’t know if the lambs sensed Kaylee was in the wheelchair, but the lambs and Kaylee just connected for some reason,” Shane Ashton said. “You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect scenario, and I think it touched a lot of people’s hearts.
“It just worked perfectly in the ring,” he said.
“The sheep walked right next to her,” Sicily Ashton said. “Anytime she stopped, they stopped. She would talk to them and tell them to stop and they stopped.” Showing one sheep, Kaylee nestled it in her arm, whispered to it and kissed it on the nose.
“You have to speak to the animal so it gets used to your voice,” Kaylee said.
Beth Ashton said, “We weren’t sure how people would react to it, but when she got in there, everyone was smiling. Afterward, the kids and everyone were talking to her, and everyone just kind of went with it and was amazed at how well she did.”
Shane Ashton said Kaylee “brought a little back about what the true meaning of 4-H is ... the experience of being up there with your friends and family, taking care of animals and the happy times of 4-H.” He said he hopes she opens the door for more special-needs children to participate.
So does Simmons: “We’ll certainly do whatever it takes to try to be inclusive.”
Jim Dunham said that after Kaylee’s performances in the show ring, many people told him how proud they were of her, and how brave she had been.
“To me, I guess I didn’t see it that way,” he said. “Because that’s Kaylee.”
Staff writer Abbey Doyle contributed to this report.
Find out more
- The Madison County 4-H Fair is reaching out to children with special needs who are interested in participating. People interested in finding out more can call Extension Director Gary Simmons, 641-9514, or Shane Ashton, 635-7355.