SHERIDAN — The week before the Sheridan County Fair, the future was a gigantic question mark for the Hinton children.
What they did know is they — 15-year-old Grace, 11-year-old Faith, and 9-year-old Noah — had worked hard, dedicating countless hours to their projects for this year’s Sheridan County Fair. But while visions of blue ribbons danced in their heads as they described their projects, the final outcome of the contests was still to be determined.
This story could have a happy ending. Or it could have a sad one. Right now, all the Hintons have is the time and effort they put into their projects.
And, honestly, that’s kind of the point, according to Sheridan County 4-H Educator Emily Swinyer.
“It’s easy to say they learn a skill, which is true,” Swinyer said. “But in all areas of 4-H, the process is the prize because that’s where the actual growth and learning happens. Even if you fail, you don’t really fail because the whole failure piece is so key to learning. The process is the real meat and potatoes of our program. The ending doesn’t really matter as long as they learned and grew along the way.”
For the Hinton children, their time in 4-H has been an endless learning process. Some lessons have been small — cake decoration doesn’t actually involve decorating a cake, but rather circular mounds of Styrofoam — while others have been more profound.
“I’ve learned how to take part and not just sit around and do nothing,” Noah said. “I’ve learned to take full responsibility for my actions, and to be more active in what I’m trying to do.”
Noah, the youngest member of the Hinton family 4-H’ers, continues on two of his family’s longest standing traditions: cake decorating and chicken showing. Both Grace and Faith also compete in the events.
The family’s involvement in cake decorating can be traced back to their dad Jeff, who formerly decorated cakes for Dairy Queen, according to Noah. Jeff passed that talent onto Grace, who shared it, when the time came, with her younger siblings.
Decorating a cake starts with the crumb coat, a base layer of frosting which keeps crumbs — i.e. pieces of Styrofoam — out of the finished cake.
From there, the children can decide on their theme and indulge their artistic talents.
“I learned artistic skills,” Noah said. “And, when I mess up, I know how to make it better.”
“I’ve learned to really pay attention to details on the cake — both when you’re decorating it and answering questions about it from the judges,” Faith said.
Chicken showing, like cake decorating, has its origins in a Hinton parent: mother Erin, who wanted her children to have experience showing livestock even though they live within Sheridan city limits.
Grace admits she wasn’t too enthused with the idea at first, but she quickly fell in love. The family currently owns 13 chickens and shows six of those.
“I wasn’t too into it at first, but then we got our first chicks and I loved it right away,” Grace said. “Now, I think chickens are probably my favorite animal.”
As with other livestock competitions, the chicken show involves showcasing and explaining the various parts of a chicken, while also answering general questions about the fowl. At this point, all three Hinton children know quite a bit of chicken-based trivia.
“I knew nothing about chickens when I started,” Grace said. “But I’ve learned quite a lot over seven years.”
But there’s a lot more to 4-H than just cakes and chickens, and one of the best things about the program is how it has allowed his children to deepen — and in some cases discover — their passions, Jeff said. Noah is competing in robotics this year, while Faith is showing a quilt and a crocheted rabbit she made by hand. Grace is showing some photography and visual art.
“I like to see them try new things,” Jeff said. “In 4-H, there are so many different project areas, there is just this huge breadth of things they can try.”
With more than 60 project areas, there are still new activities for the Hintons to explore as well. Faith wants to follow her sister into photography, while Grace wants to explore more corners of the art world. When he’s older, Noah hopes to pursue woodworking or leatherworking.
Regardless of whether the Hintons emerge from Fair Week with blue ribbons this year, they still have a lot to show for their efforts. All three children acknowledged they have grown during their time in 4-H, through both success and failures.
“When I first started, I was really shy, and while I’m still not super outgoing, I’ve gotten better,” Grace said. “4-H has also taught me responsibility and how to work hard and set goals for myself.”
Faith said she improved her public speaking and learned not to procrastinate.
That character growth hasn’t been lost on their parents, either.
“I’ve seen them grow in confidence and their ability to speak publicly,” Erin said. “I’ve seen them take on leadership roles I didn’t think they would ever have. Perseverance is another thing. They’ve learned that things don’t always turn out right the first time, but hard work pays off in the end.”
“They’ve learned to take ownerships in their projects, and learned that once you start a project, you need to finish it,” Jeff said. “They’ve learned it’s about the whole process, and no matter what the end result is, they can learn from it.”
As Swinyer said, the process is the prize. Anything else is just, well, icing on the cake.