It all started one day at the Morgan County Fair eight years ago. Current junior Isabella Johnson decided to feed and pet a llama – not knowing that her life was about to change from that moment on.

Johnson found her love for 4-H after meeting club members and animals when she was in third grade. After petting the llama Fozoli, or Fuzzy for short, she fell in love with the club. “I could instantly see that I would love to be a member,” she said. 

For Johnson, 4-H has given her many opportunities that would not be possible without the group. “My club and I go to many fairs, festivals, parades, shows and even schools,” she said. “I have brought [my animals] to the Plainfield Community Middle School in fifth grade and Van Buren Elementary School in sixth grade for presentations.” Johnson hopes to be able to do the same with the high school and give the students an opportunity to meet her animals.

Another opportunity that Johnson had due to 4-H is volunteering at a camp over the summer. “[4-H] has also brought me to my love of camp counseling, as every year at the llama farm, we have a camp called Camp Discovery,” she said. The focus of this camp is working with children who have autism. There are many different things that this camp offers, including riding horses, working with llamas, going hiking and more. Johnson helped as a peer counselor when she first joined 4-H. “These many years of this great experience may have even led me to pursue a potential career in recreational therapy,” she said.

While fun, 4-H is not easy. On competition days, Johnson has many tasks she must do before she can begin competing. She wakes up early, loads up her animals and heads over to the fair. “I then unload them at the fairgrounds and start to fill up water buckets, put hay in hay bags and other essential chores,” she said. Then she must get changed into formal attire, including a white dress shirt, formal black pants and dress boots. Since Johnson is in the senior division, she has the most difficult classes. The first class is called the Showmanship class. If she receives first or second place, then she moves onto the Championship class, which includes three performance classes: Pack, Public Relations and Obstacle. In this first class, various types of terrain must be navigated with the animal while the animal is wearing a pack. “You go throughout the course picking up and securing objects to your animal's pack,” Johnson said. Next is Public Relations. A competitor must keep their animal calm in many different types of situations, such as walking in a parade. Finally is the Obstacle round. It is exactly as it seems: an animal must navigate an obstacle course with its handler. “All three of these classes are scored depending on how well you complete the obstacle, how well your animal tolerates the obstacle and other criteria,” said Johnson. Competitions can take all day, but Johnson finds them to be fun and rewarding, despite the exhaustion that comes with them.

Even on non-competition days, Johnson is constantly doing things to help her animals. One of the not-so-exciting parts of her experience is cleaning the llama barn. This is something that must happen every Monday without fail. “This glamourous work must happen rain or shine, including in the middle of the freezing winters,” she said.

Johnson has seen 4-H as both something fun and something with meaning. She has been able to show off her animals, meet many new people and have unique experiences. But even with all of the fun, it is still difficult at times. “4-H has taught me to have a hard work ethic, which I try to carry over in all other work or activities I do,” she said. “I also try to learn and gain from every opportunity I am led to.”

For anyone that is interested in joining 4-H and creating unforgettable memories of their own, Johnson offers this: “I would recommend just joining. There are plenty of other clubs and programs available in 4-H besides llamas, even besides animals.” Johnson believes that there is something for everyone available through 4-H. “There is a wide variety of experiences that can be found within this program and I recommend for everyone to check it out,” she said. 

Johnson added that she is thankful to 4-H for showing her everything that is available to her that she never would have known without it. “These opportunities have taught me so much,” she said. “I am very grateful I have been able to be a part of it.”

Story by Reagan Zmijewski