Unified Showing: Southwest Student SOARS in Inclusivity


A showman and her buddy show their lamb to the judge.

Cadi Wilbeck

Senior Allison Walbrecht is making strides towards a more inclusive community through a program called unified showing. The program is a combination of two of Walbrecht’s passions: working with students with special needs and showing livestock. 

Walbrecht grew up helping out at her family’s beef cattle operation, which allowed her to show cattle at 4H shows. She has been an exhibitor for more than a decade, and has won numerous local and state championships. Outside of the show ring, Walbrecht is involved in unified bowling, Friendship Club, unified P.E., and unified track. As a result of her involvement in unified activities, Walbrecht began developing friendships with special needs students, and the rest was history. 

“I knew I wanted to share both of those passions and combine them somehow,” Walbrecht said. “It’s really surreal that I was actually able to make my idea areal thing that actually helps people.”

Unified showing allows students with special needs to train, care for and eventually show lambs at the Lancaster County Fair. Each showman is assigned a lamb of their own along with a ‘buddy’ to assist them. Despite the eventual success of unified showing, getting the project off the ground was a challenge. Walbrecht faced many obstacles in her attempts to gain funding for her program, one of those being the large amounts of paperwork and all of the meetings she had to attend. 

“The hardest part about making unified showing a reality was that I was 15 and had no idea what I was doing,” Walbrecht said. “The other problem was getting people to trust me with their children to be able to do something that’s brand new and make them believe in it.”

The program began practices at the start of the summer of 2020, a time when the Coronavirus pandemic was in full swing. This presented the huge challenge of keeping children safe during a pandemic while also trying to deliver an engaging and enriching showing environment.

“We were going to start practices in March, but then obviously the pandemic came along and we were unable to do that,” Walbrecht said. “I contacted all the parents and tried to figure out what they were comfortable with. We decided that we would do individual practices instead of full group ones.” 

All participants were required to wear masks, and the showmen met in small groups with only their lamb, buddy, and Walbrecht overseeing them. Most showmen and buddies had limited experience in the show ring when the program started. Walbrecht used her knowledge of showing livestock to teach the showmen correct arena etiquette along with other showing fundamentals. 

To be a showman, a participant must be of 4H age, 8-18 as of January 1st, and have some sort of disability. Buddies are mostly high school aged, although exceptions can be made in some cases.

“We try to make sure buddies have a good heart,” Walbrecht said. “They must be willing to put themselves into something that, for some kids, is their only opportunity to be able to do an activity.”

Members can stay onboard with unified showing for as long as they want, as long as they are of 4H age. Showman applications can be found HERE, and buddy applications can be filled out HERE.

“Our members stay on as long as they want, so if they keep reapplying we love to be able to grow what they have learned and build upon it,” Walbrecht continued. “We are trying to grow to house as many youth as are interested.”

However, unified showing teaches showmen much more than how to show a lamb. It gives them a sense of responsibility when they receive their own animal to care for, something most special needs students never have the opportunity to experience. Working with an animal that cannot verbally communicate with the kids teaches them patience, dedication, and communication skills.

“Olivia, one of our showmen, suffered a traumatic brain injury and struggled with her speech,” Walbrecht added. “After unified showing, her doctor said he had never seen her speak so clearly and for so long as she did when she was talking about her lamb.”

Unified showing provides an inclusive, non-judgemental environment for special needs students to grow and gain confidence.

For Walbrecht, the most rewarding thing about unified showing is the knowledge that the hard days and nights in the beginning were worth it. 

“We had no idea if it was gonna work,” Walbrecht recalled. “But now we have tripled in size, gotten so many amazing donors, and I’ve seen the way it’s impacted people. It’s really cool to be able to know that was something I did.” 

As of Aug. 2021, unified showing boasted 10 showman, eight of which showed in their respective categories, along with six buddies.

“My future plans for the program are to continue expanding into more counties as well as more states,” Walbrecht said. “I would love to see it get to the point where there is an option at every county fair, state fair, and major show for those with disabilities to be able to show livestock.” Walbrecht plans to continue the program even after she leaves Southwest to provide opportunities for as many special needs students as possible.