Superintendent Tom Rossman and co-chair of the Equine Department, Norma Ruggless congratulate first year competitor Deborah Maines on her wonderful effort with horse Epeonine. Mentor Denise Sandman, a teacher with Bittersweet Stables, proudly stands by her 16-year-old student. (Daily Star photo/KATHIE HEMPEL)
Superintendent Tom Rossman and co-chair of the Equine Department, Norma Ruggless congratulate first year competitor Deborah Maines on her wonderful effort with horse Epeonine. Mentor Denise Sandman, a teacher with Bittersweet Stables, proudly stands by her 16-year-old student. (Daily Star photo/KATHIE HEMPEL)

Archived Story

Volunteers are fair’s backbone

Published 9:17am Friday, August 28, 2009

By KATHIE HEMPEL
Niles Daily Star

Don’t think that Berrien County is horse country? Think again.

Every August, during the Berrien County Youth Fair, a good part of the fairgrounds is dedicated to the beautifully strong and impressive animals.

Equally impressive is the volunteer crews that organize, oversee, track and announce the numerous competitive events, where the well-groomed mounts and their young enthusiastic riders trot out their stuff.

Carla Cole thought she was retiring this year. However, when she was asked to return to her position in the horse department office, if she hesitated, no one seemed to notice.
“I’m home. I started to miss it even before I knew I was coming back,” she said.

Both Cole and her husband Ray began their association with the BCYF when they served together as leaders in the Happy Landings 4H Club in Buchanan. Their daughter Ann was nine and is now 40, so according to Cole that means she has been haunting the horse barns for “33 years give or take.” She has worked in the office for seven years.

For the past several years, Norma Ruggless has volunteered as co-chair of the Equine Department with President of the Fair Board, Bruce Foster. In his role as president, Foster also works with several other departments, but for Ruggless the horses and their youthful riders are the focus.

“We have 150 dedicated volunteers in this department alone. They are all golden,” she said.

As Cole was asked about her supposed retirement, Ruggless laughed. “She’s not allowed to leave us.”

Fair week was long for all involved this year. There were few days that it didn’t rain. The mud was up to the ankles of boots worn by much walking between the various exercise and competition rings and the rows of horse ‘barns’ where the 4Hers and other boys and girls muck out the 10X12 stalls, the paths and roadways surrounding them and groom their animals.

The young people do 75-85 percent of the grunt work as part of their duties during fair-time. However, that does not mean their adult volunteers are left with nothing to do.
There are constant questions from contestants about standing and the layout of the ring. Awards and ribbons must be determined and handed out. With the weather there is added work in keeping the grounds competition-ready.

“We are already working on the planning for next year’s fair. It starts now,” Cole said.
Pam Denhaan, Ruggless’ “left hand” spoke of why so many come back to volunteer, as she has for the past 15 years, all year round. It’s Friday of a very long week at the fair however she is no less enthusiastic.

“I’m tired. But all this is really fulfilling. I don’t have a child myself but I love watching how these kids progress,” she said.

Serving his fourth year as one of the superintendents for the horse department, Tom Rossman agrees. Like so many of the volunteers whose service began either as a 4H member or leader, he was involved as a leader then “Norma talked me into it.”

He smiles. “It gives good wholesome activity. My Dad always said, ‘the kids aren’t teaching the horses: the horses are teaching the kids.’ They get really good life lessons doing this. It gives young people healthy options.”

It also gives the ability to make healthy choices according to one senior rider who has been involved with the fair for a number of years as part of a family tradition.

“It keeps kids out of trouble,” 17-year-old Caitlin McCalebb said. “I love working with my animal and adore having judges see what I can do and what I have been working on all summer.”

Her mom, Pam McCalebb of Buchanan, sits in the box overlooking the grandstand. She takes calls on her cell and answers questions about competitors’ numbers and standings. With her is sister, Pat Pomeroy. They have been coming to the BCYF for about 40 years.
“Our mom was a 4H leader for 40-50 years. We are both case workers with the Department of Human Services,” Pomeroy said. “Here young people learn to work to achieve a goal. They experience disappointment and learn how to handle and grow from that. They learn to budget their time.”

McCalebb was a participant at the fair through 4-H from the time she was nine-years-old. Even a 10-year hiatus while she lived in California did not dull her urge to be involved.
“It is wonderful to see all the progress. These kids learn responsibility and respect not only for the animals but for the people as well. They have to respect what the judges’ determinations are,”  she said.

Diane Rangel is in her second year as a committee member but her involvement goes back 20 years to when her children were showing horses. Her son Michael won the Jack Dean award when he was 13 and daughter Amanda won Championship Trail when she was 17.

“Once you show here it (BCYF) is in your blood, in your heart. It is not necessary to get a ribbon. It’s seeing the pride the kids have in a great ride for having completed a task to the best of their ability,” she said.

She feels the experience learned through the responsibility of caring for the animals and being judged through competition has led to her children having more confidence and success. Her daughter now operates her own photography business, Amanda’s Everlasting Images in Niles. It could be her son’s last year competing, as he is now a sophomore in college.

This was 16-year-old Deborah Maines first year as she showed her horse Epeonine. Her mentor Denise Sandman started out as a young person with Happy Landings 4H club when Cole was there as a leader.

“When I first met Deborah this year, she could only do one lesson for her 16th birthday. It was obvious this was not enough for this gal,” Sandman said.

She gave Maines responsibility for one of her horses and the homeschooled teenager ran with it. When Sandman was out of town for a month earlier in the year, she handed over the opportunity to care for all her horses to Maines.

Sandman, who now works with Bittersweet Stables in Niles after three years of teaching out of her own stables, loves working with young people. She has been “doing this my whole life since I was six.”

“They have to have a real commitment and be responsible enough for daily duties. You don’t get to decide not to care for the animal. They have to develop a good mental attitude. With girls especially, they can be so emotional with so many things going on as they go through their teens. If you can handle a 1,000 pound animal you can control anything you need to.”

As for Maines, this has been a growing time. “I knew it would be hard but was surprised it was this hard. I have so many goals for next year. I want to improve all around and have been working in the pleasure division and trail. But I am riding a jumper. This horse likes jumping and I want to jump next year,” she said.

After overcoming many hurdles this first year, one has to believe she will be out there jumping in 2010.

One thing is sure. She will have an army of volunteers behind her, cheering her on.

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