Pleasanton's Alameda County Fair: Blind 4-H member to show
By Lou Fancher
Anticipating miracles, Ross Illingworth is eagerly awaiting the start of the Alameda County Fair. Like other kids, he loves the rides, the food, the concerts and constant competitions. The 12-year-old has achieved a place of prominence for his prized pigs.
But unlike the other 4-H showmen, Ross is legally blind. Born at 25.5 weeks and weighing a mere 1.5 pounds, Ross failed to inhale for the first 45 minutes of his life.
"Once they got him stable, a valve in his heart didn't close like it does in everybody else," says his father, Tom Illingworth.
Open heart surgery one week after birth repaired the damage, but like many premature infants, Ross had Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). The condition caused the blood vessels in his eyes to form incorrectly. Despite surgeries to repair the damage and remove resulting cataracts, his eyesight wasn't salvageable.
"I can see just a little out of one eye," says Ross, a Supreme Champion 4-H winner. "When I walk the pigs, I hear the gravel and use my memory to know where I'm going."
"He fakes people out," Illingworth says. "He's legally blind -- that eye is at 20/20/2200 vision, about the worst you can rate. People think he can see better than he really can. His confidence is so high ... but then he'll run into a wall."
And on the rare occasions when Ross does collide, or is about to, his brother, 10-year-old Braden, is the perfect sidekick.
"Braden tells Ross to duck or watch out for things," says the boys' mother, Kelly Illingworth.
Ross says other help he gets from Braden is even more vital: "He scoops, and I wheelbarrow and dump when we clean up after the pigs."
Ross reads and writes in Braille, uses a talking scale to measure the feed for the pigs he and Braden farrow, feed and show and uses a show stick to keep the pigs in line during daily, half-a-mile exercise excursions they require.
"I tap them, but with the smaller pigs, it's kind of hard and takes tons of practice," Ross says.
The limited images he's able to perceive offer mostly simple contrast, which means concrete stairs at the end of a sidewalk are indiscernible and a black pig among "a ton of other black pigs" or a judge standing in the middle of a swirl of showpigs are not visible to Ross. Because showing pigs means getting a prize animal in front of the judge while other 4-H-ers are doing the same thing, the Illingworth family has introduced orange plastic-wrapped pigs and judges dressed in bright green vests to competitions.
In 2014, Ross won Supreme Champion 4-H at the fair with Ping Pong. His brother won Reserve Supreme Champion 4-H. They plan to bring six prize RBQ showpigs to this year's fair -- that's R for Ross, B for Braden, and Q for soon-to-follow in her work boots Quinn, age 3.
Illingworth says wrapping a showpig's hindquarters isn't optimum, but Ross has still won awards, judges willingly don the vests and show officials and spectators have been enthusiastic.
Mom Kelly says they always find a way to support some part of Ross's roving ambition. Having snow-skied around stumps and rocks, run track independently using the white lines on the red rubber as guides, and supported by parents who want him to be active, not sheltered, Ross says, "I love the fair. I have tons of friends. I like the roller coaster rides. I like corn dogs, funnel cakes, crepes, nachos and lots of water."