Not sheepish with these pals

Omaha World-Herald

By Emily Babay

Outside the livestock pavilion at the Sarpy County Fairgrounds, Payton Holling’s hand slipped from the red rope holding his sheep. The 7-year-old’s wheelchair veered to the side.

Priscilla, a 1½-year-old ewe wearing a hot pink feather boa, started to saunter away.

Morgan Cox, a two-year veteran of a local sheep club, reined both back in.

“Priscilla, we lost him!” the 16-year-old said good-naturedly as she handed the Suffolk-Hampshire cross sheep’s rope back to Payton, who has Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

Payton is a member of the True Buddy sheep club, a new program that pairs special-needs children with local 4-H’ers who show sheep.

The club has met every other week since mid-June. This week, at the Sarpy County Fair, its members will show the sheep they have learned to walk and care for.

At a recent meeting, Morgan and other 4-H members walked the sheep — dressed in purple bandannas and neon-colored feather boas — in a circle around orange buckets and cones to get them warmed up.

The sheep took a few practice runs, stepping over small bars about 6 inches off the ground, as True Buddy members crowded the bleachers.

At the club’s first gathering two weeks prior, Payton had been scared of the sheep, as he is of most animals. But this time, he reached out from his wheelchair to pet the sheep as they warmed up.

“If you have any questions, ask your buddies,” said Kathy Mann, the program’s organizer, who also runs the 4-H sheep club that counts the helpers among its members.

The True Buddy members then took the ropes. They circled the cones and buckets, occasionally steering their sheep up the stairs of the short white stage.

In minutes, Logan Schneider, a 12-year-old with Down syndrome, was smiling as he walked Dime by himself.

Their walk was smooth. When the pair appeared about to bump into a cone or another sheep, a 4-H member was at hand to help guide Dime.

“Yay! She did it,” kids shouted when sheep successfully navigated over the bars.

Morgan pushed Payton’s wheelchair on the concrete floor. Payton held Priscilla’s rope.

“Look at you!” his parents exclaimed as he rolled by.

Working with the sheep has helped Payton start to overcome his fear of animals, said his mother, Cindy Holling.

“Priscilla’s very patient with him,” she said. “He’s learning to be more open to things.”

Payton’s apprehension is unusual. Most parents said their children joined because they like animals.

In fact, Logan is always trying to hug and kiss them, said Mark Schneider, his father.

Mann, whose family has raised sheep for 60 years, started the True Buddy club after watching children interact with sheep at fairs and shows. She said she saw children become more outgoing and relaxed around sheep, and thought the club could both help special-needs kids and teach 4-H members about helping others.

Sheep are a good fit for the club because even special-needs children can handle the animals on their own, Mann said. They are the size of large dogs but don’t bite or kick, so they are easier to manage.

The 4-H’ers enjoy helping their buddies handle the sheep. The 4-H kids wanted to spend the summer helping others — they also have taken the sheep to nursing homes and camps — and like the atmosphere of teamwork in the True Buddy club.

“It’s all a blast,” Morgan said. She said it can be challenging to teach special-needs kids to work with the sheep, but after she explains how and why a technique works, they usually grasp it.

“I just talk to them and show them a million times,” she said.

Having other kids as the main helpers made Payton more independent, Cindy Holling said.

“It gives him more freedom to do things without mom and dad,” she said.

At practices, many True Buddy participants embraced that autonomy. Parents rarely stepped out of the bleachers and into the show area.

The first week the club met, Maggie Fraser, 16, told her parents to leave. This was her activity.

At the recent meeting, Maggie, who has mental and emotional issues, held Marshmallow’s head close to her stomach, just like Morgan demonstrated at the session’s start.

The pair carefully walked around the pavilion. Maggie looked up at her parents and smiled each time she passed by.

In one session, Maggie and other True Buddy members learned how to groom sheep. Now, the sheep stand docilely as the kids brush them and scrub them with towels.

Maggie, wearing a sticker that said “Ewe make people smile” on her light blue T-shirt, patted the rubber grooming brush along the sheep’s back.

Before walking her sheep around the ring, she dressed the animal — first with a bright, multicolor bandanna, then with a small silver tiara.

Parents watched from the bleachers, some taking pictures with their cell phones. Most know one another because their children also participate in other activities, such as soccer and basketball.

They said the social aspect was the most important part of the club.

At the end of the meeting, Logan gave Maggie a goodbye hug and told her he’d see her at soccer.

“The sheep are cool,” said Vicki Fraser, Maggie’s mother. “But the people are why she’s excited to be here.”

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