And Thereby Hangs a Tale

by Amy Madsen on September 1, 2007 - 2:02pm

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 5
Derek received a special achievement award from the judge.

Never let it be said that Derek Turner of Medical Lake, Wash., lets disability hold him back when it comes to doing the things he wants to do.

In May, the 17-year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) showed his lamb, Secret, at the 72nd annual Spokane Junior Livestock Show in Washington state. He earned two blue ribbons, a special achievement award, and the respect of the judges and his competition alike, as he became, according to Junior Livestock officials, the first competitor ever to use a wheelchair in this event.

The lamb tale started last fall when Derek, then a sophomore at Medical Lake High School, joined Future Farmers of America (FFA), a national student organization that promotes agricultural education as a means of developing leadership skills, personal growth and career success. Medical Lake High School FFA members grow and sell geraniums, run a Christmas tree fund-raiser, and raise animals including goats, pigs, steers and lambs.

Derek didn’t miss out on any of it.

“He’s so eager to get involved — he loves to get involved,” said FFA instructor Randy Williams. 

Like many of the other kids, Derek purchased his lamb — a ewe he named Secret — for $160. Every day after class, a partner would go out and catch Secret so Derek could work on gentling the lamb and training her to lead and respond to his commands.

“She was pretty afraid of the wheelchair at first — people, too,” said Angie Turner, Derek’s mom.  “It was like a wild deer on a rope.”

But Secret not only lost her fear of Derek’s chair, she learned to take cues from it, stopping for example when she heard the tell-tale clicks that mean Derek’s slowing to a stop.

The culmination of Derek’s efforts was the FFA trip to the Junior Livestock Show, where the only accommodation made for him was a lighter than usual layer of sawdust to allow him to more easily maneuver his wheelchair.

According to his mom, Derek never felt discouraged throughout the competition, and the only glitch occurred during the first class when his hands got cold and stiff, forcing him to work the joystick on his power wheelchair with his thumb. The problem was easily solved, however, with a pair of gloves and hand-warmers for the next class, Angie said.

At the end of the weeklong event, Secret, along with all the other livestock, was auctioned off. Most lambs go to slaughter and “Derek said he was okay [with that] but he also kept saying he really hoped she went to someone for a pet or for breeding,” Angie said.

Little did Derek know his wish was going to come true — and in a bigger and better way than he ever could have imagined.

A group of local farmers approached Derek’s parents and asked if they would let Derek keep Secret for a pet. They readily agreed, but didn’t say anything to Derek about it in case it didn’t happen.

While most participants led their animals for one turn around the sales ring, Derek held Secret for almost 20 minutes as the group took turns bidding the lamb up to $17.50 per pound. (Lambs typically go for less than $2 per pound.) The group then turned the lamb back over to Derek.

With Secret weighing in at 131 pounds, Derek looks to net almost $2,300 — along with the lamb.

“Derek got to keep the money and the lamb — they did it so Derek could use the money to feed it,” Angie said.

At home with Derek and his family now, Secret comes running when anyone whistles for the pet golden retriever. Her favorite snack is Wheat Thins.

Derek’s proud of his accomplishment and the ribbons and newspaper clippings that he plans to hang on his wall, but he says the best thing about his experience in the FFA is the fun and friendships with his fellow students.

“I just feel like one of the other kids in there,” he said.

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