Gus Allen took off his size 7 crocs — both right shoes — and traded them for his dirty Justin’s.
It was time to tend to the animals.
Allen, 18, is a senior at Red Oak High School and has been an active participant in FFA since his freshman year. This year, he is showing a steer and a pig during the 2019 Ellis County Youth Expo, which runs Monday-Saturday this week.
Wednesday afternoon Gus followed his mother, Dawn Williamson, from the steer barn to the pigs. He sat in a folding chair with a brush in his hands as his mom fed Lorie, Allen’s pig.
“Gus, come brush Lorie,” Williamson said. When he didn’t come, she left the pen and guided him there by the hand.
While Williamson sprayed Lorie with oil, Gus followed behind with a brush which he moved from the tail toward the pig’s head.
“That’s the wrong way,” said Williamson as she grabbed his hand and brushed downward. Gus' hand still clung to the brush. “Brush with the hair.”
As Gus brushed, his stepfather, Steve Williamson, worked outside by scooping droppings into a bucket.
His parents are there every step of the way, Red Oak FFA advisor Jake Mullican noted.
“I don’t think a lot of parents would take that challenge on,” said Mullican about caring for two animals.
The students around Allen worked independently and occasionally helped one another, but for Allen, it took the whole family.
That’s because Gus has Down Syndrome.
UNDERSTANDING DOWN SYNDROME
Down Syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by the presence of a third copy of chromosome 21. Along with the third chromosome comes physical growth delays and intellectual disability, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.
The syndrome is not uncommon. About one in every 700 babies is born with it, and that makes it the most common chromosomal condition.
The National Down Syndrome Society estimates that 6,000 babies with Down Syndrome are born in the U.S. each year.
It is so common, the United Nations declared March 21 as World Down Syndrome Day, which began in 2012 as a way to raise public awareness. Most people recognize the day by wearing mismatched and brightly colored socks. The day was selected because March 21 represents the third 21 chromosome.
Maternal age is the only factor that has been linked to the likelihood of having a baby with Down Syndrome. As birth rates in younger women are increasing which resulted in 80 percent of children with the syndrome being born to women under 35 years old, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.
A woman who is 35 years old has a one in 350 chance of having a child with Down Syndrome with the chances increase to one in 100 by age 40.
The additional chromosome can originate from either mother or father with about five percent of cases being traced to the father.
There are three forms of Down Syndrome: Trisomy 21, Translocation and Mosaicism.
Trisomy 21 is the most common of the three. It occurs when three chromosomes, as opposed to two, present in every cell of the body. So, instead of having the typical 46 chromosomes they have 47. This form happens in about 95 percent of cases.
As medicine progresses, so does the health of people with Down Syndrome. About 100 years ago, children with Down Syndrome lived to age nine. Now, with heart surgery and medical advancements, 80 percent of adults with Down Syndrome live to 60 years old or older, according to the Down Syndrome Society.
Down Syndrome comes in varying levels that affect communication. For many, they understand what is being said but they are nonverbal. Like Allen.
As Gus sat in his folding chair by Woodrow, his steer, people came by and asked how he is doing. Instead of speaking, Gus gives a high five or makes noises of his favorite animals — he really enjoys "moo-ing" with Woodrow.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
All throughout intermediate school, Gus was put in art classes as his elective. But, he is not the art type, Dawn said.
Gus' freshman year of high school was their chance to find something he would like and have the capability to participate. Dawn reached out to Mullican who said FFA is for anyone willing to try.
“They weren’t unsure about him being in their class,” Dawn said. “I don’t know if they’ve ever had anybody like Gus show animals before. We just learned as we went.”
His first experience with showing animals was during the Ellis County Youth Expo four years ago when he participated in “A Day in the Ring.”
“A Day in the Ring” was created to showcase the talents of kids with disabilities from all of Ellis County. To make this happen, students are paired with an FFA buddy who is already showing an animal that week.
The pair then shows the animal in the ring like regular competition.
“It gives them a bit of experience with it,” Steve said.
Gus was hooked after that. He went on to show three pigs in two years and is showing a pig and a steer this year.
“There’s something about cows,” Dawn said. “He loves cows, trains and Six Flags.”
Steers are expensive, so the family stuck with showing pigs. In May, Mullican found a steer that Gus could show which turned out to be a good thing, Dawn said.
“He smiles and he’s totally interested in it,” Dawn noted. “He doesn’t get interested in a lot of things.”
THE FFA FAMILY
Gus' parents aren’t the only ones who help.
The other FFA students jump in to help whenever they can because Gus can’t show his steer or pig on his own.
Red Oak FFA advisor Kayla Threet said the national organization offers students a chance to have that hands-on experience. She noted Gus sees the other kids work and he learns by watching them.
“It shows everybody, that regardless of who you are, you can be in FFA,” Threet said. “It also shows that kids like Gus that have disabilities can do the same thing every other kid can do.”
She said she enjoys watching the growth in the students as they help Gus with his animals.
“Those kids make sure Gus is taken care of,” she added. “It’s pretty awesome as a teacher to watch.”
Red Oak senior Delylia Rogers helps Gus work and show Woodrow. She holds the steer’s harness, and Gus holds on to her arm.
“In order for him to be successful at all, he has to have lots of help,” Dawn said. “He tends to respond better to his peers rather than his parents.”
Dawn said it’s best if Gus doesn’t hold on to the harness. One day while they were taking care of Woodrow, he wrapped his tongue around Gus' arm. That put an end to him getting close to the cow, she noted.
It’s great to watch the other kids helping Gus, Dawn said.
“It gives him the opportunity to participate in an activity usually the students that don’t have a disability participate in and it gives them an opportunity to meet Gus and see that he is a regular teenager like them,” Dawn said.
Steve said this is the closest Gus has gotten to be an active participant in society.
“When you see him with a big ole smile on his face, it’s fulfilling,“ Steve noted. “It makes us happy to see him happy.”
During his time in FFA, Steve said Gus has learned so much. He noticed that he cleans around the barn and realizes there are things to do.
One of the chores Gus tends to is the wheelbarrow. Near the end of the Wednesday, Gus took the wheelbarrow full of hay and dumped it out back.
After the long trek, he sat down in a folding chair by Woodrow’s pen, took off his Justin’s and put back on his two right-footed shoes.
Samantha Douty, @SamanthaDouty