TAMPA — Between the morning and afternoon competitions at the Florida State Fair, Nico Sommer groomed his calf, Biscuit. There in the center cow barn, he thought about their journey together.
"It started Oct. 22, last year,” Sommer, who’s 9, said. “It was time for me to get a cow.”
Sommer is a student at Pepin Academies, a charter school for students with special needs. He recalled the first time he bottle-fed Biscuit that October day through Sassy Cows for Savvy Kids, a program run by Riverview High School agriculture teacher Karen Hamilton.
“She picked me to feed (Biscuit),” Sommer said. “It was like having my own cow. My brain and heart were having a conversation, and my brain and heart had the same opinion. ... It’s like having a puppy, but bigger and you can’t cuddle them.”
Sommer liked to call her Jessie, like the character from Toy Story.
For Hamilton, who started Sassy Cows for Savvy Kids, a program that pairs students with special needs with students participating in Riverview’s agriculture program to care for the calves through the year and compete at the state fair, the story started even earlier.
Hamilton also teaches classes at Riverview for special needs students. Twenty years ago, a student with Down syndrome named Joshua Holmes said he wanted to compete at the state fair. Initially, Hamilton thought he might be able to enter a rabbit in a competition. But Holmes insisted he wanted to show a cow.
“Why not?” she remembered thinking.
So Hamilton found a calf, and Joshua bottle fed, groomed, fed and cared for it. He named her Sassy. He wanted to do it again the next year. Eventually, the cow outgrew the boy, and Hamilton had to get him a new calf. He participated at the state fair for eight years running, even placing first one year. And each time he named his calf Sassy.
Hamilton was inspired. Sassy Cows 4 Savvy Kids has grown, some years with up to 20 students participating. Each student is assigned certain days of the week and responsibilities to care for the calves, which are donated by dairies across the state. They learn about the calves’ growth and how to feed them, groom them and keep record books. At the state fair, they compete with others in their age bracket across the state.
Christina Campoamor Sommer, Nico’s mother, said she’s watched her son take on the responsibility of caring for the calves, opting for time spent there over looking at electronics. She said her own father ran a dairy.
“It’s made him very curious about his history and how things have evolved from what my dad used to do it until now,” she said.
Nico’s cousins, 15-year-olds Bobby and Tommy Campoamor, also attend Pepin. They raised calves and celebrated their birthdays the day of the competition.
“The work that goes into it, I have a new appreciation for it,” their mother, Summer Campoamor, said. “They really look forward to going and meeting them. They want to go on the days they aren’t scheduled.”
Jennifer Filipek, a student at Riverview High, said participating in the program and working alongside students with different learning abilities has been a learning experience for her.
“I think it teaches you patience and understanding," she said.
Jennifer Borg, whose 13-year-old daughter Zoe has participated in the program for four years, said her daughter is now able to teach some of the traditional students skills, like how to tie the knots used to properly harness and secure the cows.
“She has really blossomed with this,” Borg said. “It’s allowed her to take on more responsibility. And be proud of it.”
For Hamilton, the ribbons the students collect some years is less important to her than seeing the pride in her students’ faces.
“It’s rewarding to see them do things they might not think they can do otherwise,” she said.