Autism and living in town don't prevent 11-year-old Walton resident Owen Thomas from showing pigs at the Cass County 4-H Fair.
He was able to compete in the fair's daylong swine competition for the first time on Thursday because of a Cass County farmer who sponsors kids whose homes don't accommodate livestock.
Owen showed two of the over 400 pigs in the swine show, whom he dubbed "Spot" and "Uncle Sam."
They're Josh Cunningham's pigs that he keeps on his property near Clymers. Carla Thomas, Owen's mother, said her son has been heading there before the fair at least five days a week to walk them, clean up after them and feed them the occasional marshmallow.
"Being autistic, it's good for him to care for an animal," Thomas said.
Thomas said her older son always wanted to show animals in 4-H but they never had anywhere to keep them. The family keeps chickens in their backyard, which Owen's shown in the fair the past three years, but he's never been able to walk an animal through a show ring until this summer.
Owen is in a children's church class that Cunningham teaches at Revolution Community Church in Logansport. Thomas said Cunningham told them if Owen ever wanted to show larger animals in the fair, that he'd be happy to help.
"He's had a ball," Thomas said of Owen. "He absolutely loves it."
She said she's grateful for Cunningham's assistance.
"Josh is wonderful," she said. "He's been great with me and my husband. I can't say enough good things about him. He's always right there to help his kids and our kids and everybody else's kids that have animals."
Cunningham said he's been allowing 4-H'ers to show his livestock for about the past five years. Along with his own children, he's helping seven fair participants compete with goats, sheep and pigs in the 2018 fair. He kept straight all of the pig classes he needed to be aware of on Thursday by writing them on his hand.
Sponsorship has been a beneficial experience for both his kids and the ones he helps, he said.
"My kids get to interact with the other kids and my kids get to teach these kids what they've learned and vice-versa," he said.
He helps the 4-H'ers he sponsors prepare for the fair by having them walk the animals and set their legs in a makeshift ring in his pasture the same size as the one they compete in. They also go over the animals' body parts.
"I don't really require them to do a whole lot while they're in school but when school gets out, when they're out on summer break, I require at least two days a week, that's all I require," he said.
Like Owen, some of the kids Cunningham sponsors have special needs. Cunningham said he works to keep Owen focused at a fairground full of distractions.
"My main goal is to get him through that chute, get him in the pen up there and get him to do what we practiced at home," he said. "And he'll do fine."
Later on Thursday, when it was time for Owen to show, Cunningham followed him into the Exhibition Building. The mentor leaned over the fencing to give Owen last-minute pointers as the 4-H'er waited with his pig in a holding pen.
After Owen entered the ring with all the other contestants, Cunningham reminded him to keep his animal between himself and the judge.
"There you go!" Cunningham said as Owen guided the pig toward the man in the ring studying all of the animals carefully.
4-H teaches kids important lessons, Cunningham said, like livestock's purpose. The sooner children discover that, the better, he continued, adding it's beneficial for them to learn that meat doesn't just come from a supermarket.
Thomas echoed that. It's particularly valuable for Owen to understand that principle, she said, as his favorite meal is pork chops, rice and peas.
"Now remember, we like 'Spot' and 'Uncle Sam,' but they're just here for a little while," she said she often reminds Owen. "They're serving a purpose. They're going to feed people."
Thomas said Owen's older brother is a 10-year 4-H member.
"It really made him into the person that he is," she said.
The organization teaches responsibility and forges friendships, Thomas continued.
"They make such good friends and not just at their school, but other schools," she said.
4-H also encourages kids to take pride in what they do and to pursue community service. It's why she said she's worked in the Cloverleaf Complex's kitchen at the fair for the past 20 years, explaining it sets an example of teaching manners and taking care of others.
"I was taught that when I was a kid so I want to pass that on to teach others," she said.
Reach Mitchell Kirk at email@example.com or 574-732-5130.