When Laurie Shackleford, mother of Damon Heard-Shackleford, age 15, went to orientation at Yelm High School for incoming students last year, she happened upon the Future Farmers of America (FFA) booth. Damon has autism, and because of this Laurie is always looking for ways to help him socialize and participate. “I want him involved in things with kids,” she explains. “Kids with autism have a tendency to want to be in their own world, and I don’t allow that. Activities provide mandatory social time.”
Laurie was struck by the accomplishments of the Yelm FFA. The group, comprised of more than 1,000 youth led by eight advisors, is a 5-Star Chapter and winner of the National Chapter of Excellence Award, placing number one in the country. It is also a “model of excellence” award winner.
“As far as I know, they haven’t had a child with autism in the group before, but I thought if they have all these recognitions, they must be a really great group of kids, and it’s turned out that way,” she adds. “The kids are really supportive of him.”
Damon and Laurie decided on a rabbit project for the Thurston County Fair because rabbits are small and do not require land to raise. His show rabbit this year is a 3.5-year-old Blue Polish named Black Widow (after the Marvel character). They bought her because she was an ex-show bunny that was already trained. He is raising another bunny named Storm (after the X-men character), a dwarf Lionhead/Holland Lop mix, to show and breed. She is a “fancy” rabbit, meaning she will not be auctioned off at the end of fair.
“He loves his bunny,” Laurie says. “When he heard people talking about the hot weather in the fair barns and how it can affect the rabbits, he got very concerned and asked me if Black Widow was going to be okay.” Luckily, Damon’s bunnies live in a large hutch outside so they are acclimated to the weather. It makes their stay at the fair less of a temperature shock and reduces the risk of overheating.
Damon practices about 30 minutes a day with his bunny, mostly working on what he has to say. His biggest challenge is having to talk to the judge, especially in front of a large group of people. Laurie explains that Damon is classified as non-verbal. “This just means he has to work a bit harder,” his mother says. “We don’t see it as an excuse for him to not do something. It just might be harder for him.”
Damon’s speech therapist, Christopher Heistand of Therapeutic Beginnings on Capitol, told Laurie to bring the rabbit to his speech therapy sessions so Damon could practice with him. It certainly seems like a great way to make speech therapy fun. “He had him practice there with the showing and what he has to say to the judge, and then he brought in strangers that Damon had to talk in front of because that’s when he gets really nervous,” explains Laurie. “It’s been incredible to have Chris’s support.”
In fact, Matt Chisam, Damon’s FFA advisor, was surprised at how much he talked during meetings. However when the FFA group got together with all their rabbits for a practice show, it proved to still be a little too much for Damon. “Last week we had a practice with all the kids and their rabbits and Damon really freaked out and couldn’t handle it,” she says. “We went back with just his advisor, and he did great.”
Laurie says the judge plans to look at Damon’s rabbit separately and away from the crowd, to make him feel more comfortable. “It’s really great that they are willing to accommodate Damon,” she adds.
As part of his rabbit project, Damon also has to create a poster. Since he struggles with reading, they decided to make the poster mainly with images and few words. “We thought how cool would that be if his poster was very simple and very picture oriented so that people who struggle with reading can still understand it,” his mother explains.
Damon is not the only one with first-show nerves, however. It is hard on the parents too. Laurie candidly shares, “When you have a kid with a disability you just want them to be like everybody else, and you realize they have these struggles, and it’s hard as a mom to see your child struggle. Damon has a normal IQ, so we know he knows it and is very aware of what is going around him, he just doesn’t have the ability to express it. And that’s the hardest part.”
Christopher, his speech therapist, reminds her that even if he messes up and does not say the right thing, at least he has had the experience. He will participate and that is the important thing. Christopher has confidence in him, though, and is already planning for Damon’s second year in FFA. He says Damon should try the meat rabbit category as well because then he will have to participate in the auction, make a portfolio and talk to businesses on his own, all things that will help increase Damon’s ability to socialize and talk to others.
The FFA will be showing rabbits Thursday, August 3, from 5:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at the Thurston County Fair.