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FOND DU LAC – The standing room only crowd inside the Cow Palace at the Fond du Lac County fairgrounds filled the cavernous building with cheers and applause as three special needs youth triumphantly led their pigs into the show ring during the fair's first-ever A Special Final Drive.

"There were few dry eyes after the show was over," said co-organizer Tari Costello, who also serves as an ag teacher and FFA advisor for Waupun Area High School.

The July 20 event was modeled after the "All for One" show at the Wisconsin State Fair, where FFA and 4-H youth are partnered with youth with cognitive and/or physical disabilities, giving them the opportunity to show a pig at the fair while being taught the showmanship skills by the young leaders.

"My sons and I participate in the open swine show at the Wisconsin State Fair and after we watched the "All for One" show, there was no question in my mind that this needed to come to the Fond du Lac County Fair," said Dan Cappozzo, swine leader for the Armstrong 4-H Club. "Tari Costello has a passion for the fair and the kids and she's a lot like me; when we have an idea, we get it done."

After securing permission from the fair board in May, Costello began promoting the show by contacting agriculture education instructors throughout Fond du Lac County, asking them to share the concept with special education teachers in their respective schools.

"For our first show we had three participants which was probably a great number to start with to get our feet wet," said Costello, adding that the Waupun FFA came on board to sponsor the first time event.

On the Saturday afternoon of the show, three area youth – Seth Zimmerman, 17, Olivia Schrader, 11 and Ava Zelazoski, 11 – met with their mentors, specially selected by Cappozzo and Costello. 

The pair opted to select three swine project youth to mentor each participant.

"During the swine show, we were watching for the pigs that were well trained and exhibitors that keep a cool head while they're out there in the show ring. Kids that we know from past experience are going to be good, giving and kind," Costello said.

Mentors from Fond du Lac County 4-H clubs and FFA chapters included Madelyn and Katelyn King, Brittany and Jamie Reilly, Erich and Quinton Cappozzo, Katie Schwanke, McKinley Krueger and Klair Grinstead.

In preparation for the show, Seth, Olivia and Ava spent three hours together with their mentors learning how to walk their pig, understanding what the pig eats and how much the animal weighs. Most importantly they developed relationships.

"We got to know them better, walking around the fairgrounds and going into other barns and looking at the animals, and letting them warm up to us," said mentor Katie Schwanke who lent her prize-winning gilt Sweetheart for the show.

While Seth Zimmerman is no stranger to the fair, being a member of the Rosendale 4-H Club and Laconia FFA, his mother, Diane Zimmerman says her non-verbal son was so excited about making new friends. 

"The fair is his week to shine. During this time we see how much he's grown since the year before," Zimmerman said. "For him its a safe place. He knows his way around and knows a lot of people."

As part of the afternoon's events, the mentors got to take their 'exhibitor' out to dinner before the show. Zimmerman says she became emotional when as she caught sight of her son in the midst of his new companions, a grin splitting his face as he accompanied them down the Midway.

"Seeing him so happy and acting like a normal kid brought tears to my eyes," Zimmerman said. "He has a hard time controlling his facial muscles when he tries to smile. But when he was with these kids and later in the show ring, he couldn't stop smiling naturally."

At 6:30 p.m., Seth, Olivia and Ava each entered the show ring with their pig and mentors, decked out in matching T-shirts. As they paraded their animal around the show ring, judge Alex Costello of Compeer Financial – and alum of the Fond du Lac County Market Livestock Project – made his way through the class, interviewing both the mentors and exhibitors about the pigs.

Tari Costello says Seth, Olivia and Ava were well prepared with the answers, sometimes relying on a few hints from their mentors.

"When the girls were asked if they were having fun, they both enthusiastically responded with a resounding 'yes!' and that they loved their new friends," Costello said. "Seth was grinning from ear to ear as he used his iPad to type in the word 'yes' to the same question."

Alex Costello presented each of the exhibitors with a coveted purple Champion Showman rosette and declared each of them as champions. In the eyes of Costello, Cappozzo, Zimmerman and the crowd inside the Cow Palace, there were a dozen champions at the end of the night.

"It's hard not to be touched by what we saw that evening. We talk continuously in 4-H and FFA about the leadership opportunities for kids," she said. "That night those nine kids demonstrated that beyond belief."

Schwanke says working with special needs youth has broadened her perspective of what it means to be a leader.

"I came into this show thinking I would be doing the teaching, little did I know how much I would learn as a mentor. I just have a whole new outlook on working with kids," she said.

Zimmerman says the Special Final Drive show was by far the highlight of her son's week at the fair.

"He had so much fun that he didn't even want to take off his T-shirt," Zimmerman said with a laugh.

The evening with also tinged with sadness as the three exhibitors hugged their new friends, shed some tears and promised to come back next year.

"I love everything that happened in the ring," said Zimmerman. "It's hard for special needs kids to try new things sometimes. But this was a very safe, well thought out environment and the youth volunteers that came out were just super.

"They were kind, patient, really accepting of the kids and just happy to be there. Any time I saw the kids out there with their mentors they were all smiling. Their mentors made them feel very comfortable and safe. It was a really great event for them," she added.

Cappozzo agrees.

"When I looked at the kids interacting with each other, I just saw a lot of love for each other; just a big family atmosphere and lots of joy," he said.

Costello said the show generated a cascade of positive responses from everyone involved including the crowd.

"We had people coming up to us wondering how they could get involved next year," Costello said. "I think it's going to continue to draw more interest."

The diminutive ag teacher says she was so excited after the show she could hardly sleep.

"So many people don't understand what the fair is about. People get so worried about ribbons and trophies, and how much they made on their animal at the sale. The fair is about so much more," Costello said. "What we saw in the ring that night, the leaders that we're developing and the skills that they're learning. All these things come together to make these future leaders. Our communities are gong to be in good hands with kids like these."

For more information on "A Special Final Drive" for the 2020 Fond du Lac, contact Tari Costello at tlcostello64@gmail.com.

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