Bacon Buddies helps people with special needs show off livestock at Iowa State Fair. Des Moines Register


Katie Ball hasn’t decided how she feels about the pig splayed across his pen, snoring with contentment.

For his part, the pig’s loud snorts indicate his mild dissatisfaction with being roused to attention for new visitors.

“No laying on my watch, mister,” Ball, 22, shouts from a safe distance away, her head peeking out from behind my back.

Before the pig was awoken, Ball decided she would like him to stay in his pen, eschewing walking him around the barn with a quick, “No, thank you.” But she is eventually coaxed by her mentor, Nevaeh Brown, 13, to the gate where the pig’s snout sought food.

Ball inches closer and closer, extending her arm far enough that her fingertips could just barely feel the coarse hair on the pig’s back.

“Oh, I touched it!” she says excitedly before going back in for another pet.

“Woooow,” she adds, her eyes getting wide. “He’s incredible.”

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Similar scenes play out all day in the Iowa State Fair’s Swine Barn as urbanites and others without a farm background encounter agriculture up close. 

But for Katie and the dozens of other Iowans with special needs who are washing and walking pigs for the evening show, this particular experience would be different. For the first time in fair history, people with special needs were being offered an opportunity to not just interact with livestock, but to show pigs in the main ring, complete with lights, judges and an electrified audience — just like everybody else.

And all of that is due to one persistent high school senior: Kylee Brown.

A tireless shower of pigs and supporter of agriculture, Brown, 16, noticed the people with special needs she saw everywhere else — school, activities, around town — weren’t on the livestock showing circuit. As a child raised in the world of mainstreaming, Brown didn’t think that was right — so the Earlham native got to work making a change.

A year and a lot of meetings later, Bacon Buddies was born. And, after a fantastic first appearance at the Iowa State Fair, the nascent program will not only be back at the Swine Barn next year, but it is undoubtedly on its way to becoming a stalwart event at the fair.

Inclusion is the goal  

“A lot of these kids are seen in other places as 'not the same as us,’” Brown said. “But I think when they go to a show and they're like, ‘Oh, wow, we get to do these things that all the other kids get to do,’ it just shows them that we are there for them and we're pulling together for them.” 

Ball’s mom, Karen, heard about Bacon Buddies through Special Olympics Iowa and wasn’t sure if this would be her daughter’s thing. They live in Waukee, the heart of suburbia, and Ball has an open disdain for chickens and a fear of dogs she’s never met before, Karen says, sitting in the audience.

But Ball, who has Down syndrome, doesn't miss a chance to sign up for a new activity, so Karen figured, why not try? And anything having to do with the State Fair is a big deal worth supporting, she adds.

“We went to a Best Buddies event once and the speaker got up there and said, ‘You know, this is not rocket science,’” Dave Ball, Katie’s dad, said. “People with special needs just want to be included and that’s it, really. They just want to do what the other kids are doing.”

Or, to put it another way, they don’t want to be watching from the hard metal bleachers. They want to be out there in the ring, leading pigs.

And in just a few minutes, they would be.

A country life

The Brown house sits more than three miles off a paved road, just enough distance for your car to get a good coating of gravel road dust. Surrounded by cornfields, complete with grain bins and hog barns in the backyard, Brown lives in a country paradise.

And that’s how she likes it.

Brown’s whole life has unfolded under big skies, surrounded by pigs. A country girl through and through, Brown showed her first pig at just 7 years old.

“I was just kind of running around in the ring with my glasses falling off,” she said. “I was pretty small compared to a lot of the people out there; the pig was about the same height as me.”  

“But that’s just the opening of a great chapter in my life,” she added.  

Since catching the pig-showing bug, Brown has participated in an intense annual circuit. The yearly livestock tour has not only helped her make friends in a handful of states, see more of the country than she would have otherwise, and win belt buckles – like the big Sweepstakes Champion one she is sporting when we talk.

It’s also taught her one of life’s most important lessons:

“The hard work you put into it, it shows,” Brown said. “It's kind of like life: The more work you put into it, the better you're going to do.”

Brown has seen a few participants with physical disabilities showing animals over the years, and she always found it “inspiring” that they overcame challenges she couldn’t even fathom to enter the ring. With these images in the background, she found herself wondering, why has she never seen kids with intellectual disabilities showing?

Was it because most people with special needs live in urban areas to be close to services? Or because pig showing is an expensive venture, especially for people with medical bills?

Or was it simply because no one had asked?

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The road to Bacon Buddies

After pairing off teenage mentors with their buddies, the Bacon Buddies crew sat down for a dinner of pork burgers and water. A few chatted online before the event, but most were meeting for the first time, and the mentors spent time in between bites preparing them for the lights and sounds of the show ring.

In the stall next to Katie Ball, Daniel Curtis, 18, walked his pig, Dolly, up and down the stalls with aplomb, taking to the whole process of readying a pig for show like a duck to water.

This was the first time he has shown animals, Curtis, who has Down syndrome, tells me. As they work, Brown, who is acting as Curtis’ mentor, looks into his eyes and chats with him like she would talk to anyone else — never patronizing, never talking down.

“What do you think about this?” she asks Curtis.

“Not hard at all! I hope I can do it in there,” he says, pointing to the show ring.

“Oh, you’re going to be awesome,” Brown assures.

Before Bacon Buddies, Brown thought she might mentor one kid at a time, taking them on the circuit with her for a year to learn the ropes.

She reached out to a handful of local organizations for help identifying a mentee, and they’d all congratulate her on a “really good idea,” but didn’t really know where to point her. Finally, she stumbled on the All for One Swine Show in Wisconsin, a show very similar to what Bacon Buddies is today.

She traveled to Wisconsin last year and was blown away by how all those involved were driven by a simple premise: Everyone deserves a chance to be part of the fun.

“It almost kind of made me cry because you see these kids out there smiling,” Brown said. “They're hugging the pigs. They're laughing with the mentors. You're asking them questions and they're just having a blast.”

She came back totally resolved in her quest to bring something like that to Iowa and started making calls. She connected with Special Olympics Iowa to find buddies, enlisted the help of some of the state’s best youth handlers, secured use of their pigs, got the fair’s stamp of approval and even garnered support from major stakeholders like the National Pork Board.

Within a few weeks of starting her quest, Bacon Buddies was happening at the 2019 Iowa State Fair.

“With teenagers, sometimes they hit a bump in the road and they might give up and be done with it,” said Zach Irving, Brown’s agriculture teacher and FFA adviser. “But Kylee didn’t let any sort of hiccup stop her. It’s extremely unique when you see a kid pursue something and follow through with the sort of passion that Kylee did for Bacon Buddies.”

Seeing Curtis in the pen with his pig, rubbing his back, Ball decides to try leading her pig through the barn.

“Do you want to name the pig?” mentor Nevaeh Brown asks.

“No, I don’t think so,” Ball says.

“Oh, OK, you don’t…” Brown replies before being cut off by Ball.

“Ok, fine,” Ball declares. “His name is Bacon.”

'That's my pig'

In the show ring, Tom McMillan, an intellectually disabled man from Stanley, Iowa, is so excited to show his pig that he hasn’t let go of the whip or the brush since they were handed to him about an hour ago.

His mentor, Emily Harold, 18, lets McMillan lead his pig around almost by himself, mostly just offering words of encouragement.

Brown had asked Harold to be a part of the event a few months ago, and she was “honored” to accept.

“I thought this sounded so cool,” Harold said. “The revolution is inclusion, and we’re all passionate about it, so why not share it with someone else.” 

Next year, those in charge of Bacon Buddies hope to involve more participants with special needs. But their bigger goal is to make the connection between buddy and mentor earlier in the season, so the special needs participants can have more hands-on training.

Brown certainly hopes Bacon Buddies participants will want to show pigs again or otherwise get involved with agriculture. But the real point of the program, she said, is to create bonds that last way past the final day of the fair.

“No matter where you came from, we’re all the same,” Brown said. “So we all need to be able to reach out and give each other opportunities and not just keep it to ourselves.”

Just before walking Bacon out, Ball is coaxing him to stop oinking so loudly. “Be a good boy, Bacon,” she says with a light pet.

After a few circles around the ring, Ball stands center ring, smiling wide as she is handed her shiny yellow ribbon. She models the wave she perfected as Waukee homecoming queen a few years ago.

As she exits the ring, she high-fives the crowd, which has steadily grown throughout the event.

She’s basking in her Bacon Buddies glow, for sure. But she’s never too far from her mission.

“Watch out,” she tells the audience members as Bacon makes his way through the crowd.

“That’s my pig! That's my Bacon!

COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She'd name her pig Niels Bohr... get it? You can reach her at 515-284-8360 or Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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