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Sparking a flame
September 5, 2019

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By ELIJAH DECIOUS

edecious@messengernews.net

SAC CITY - Justin Rupnow, a 16-year-old 4-H'er in Sac County, knew he wanted to help as he looked pensively at the "Raise the Roof" sign on display at the show ring during the Sac County Fair.

"But when you're a kid, you can't just write a check," as his mother, Larissa Rupnow, put it.

By that time, the annual bonus auction after showing sheep and pigs at the fair had become second nature to him in the years since he started showing animals in elementary school. But this time was different.

This time, he thought a new seed needed to be sown on the fairgrounds that had instilled so many lessons in him.

"Some posts holding up the building, you can easily move with your bare hand," said Steph Erpelding, ISU Extension county youth coordinator, of the livestock barns on the Sac County Fairgrounds.

At the outset of the year, fair administration announced a new capital project to replace the show ring and the beef and sheep barn. But that takes money, and a lot of it.

So Justin Rupnow decided to do something about it.

Being the first up for auction out of 86 kids isn't usually the coveted spot in a bonus auction as a 4-H'er aims to recoup some of the money they invested into their animals, or re-invest it into next year's project - winning bids for the first few typically end up being lower.

But this year's first made the most of it, unintentionally setting off a wave of momentum that culminated in a bidding war at the end as each succeeding 4-H'er offered to donate more and more of their auction wins.

"A small spark can start a fire," Justin Rupnow said - his main takeaway after the mind-blowing auction.

Right before bidding on his ribbon commenced, he decided to donate $200 from his wins. The momentum took a minute or two to build, he said.

Then it hit the aluminum stands like a tsunami, organically generating spontaneous decisions from each kid next in line to donate, too, in increasingly larger amounts with unprecedented bids pouring in.

Typical bonus auctions generally produce anywhere from $300 to $1,000 for most 4-H'ers. But this year, bids routinely started reaching over $1,000. Then over $2,000, as the auctioneer egged bidders on with reminders of the youth's generosity and the good cause.

The children looked at each other, stunned at the bids received and still confused in the heat of the moment as to why the bids kept going up and up, recalled Larissa Rupnow.

Then Dakota Powell stepped up -one of the last people to step up to the auction's plate - and was the first to offer to donate 100 percent of his bonus auction wins to the fairgrounds project.

The floodgates for bidding opened, and the crowd went wild.

Powell received more than $4,000, shattering ceilings that the Rupnow family - steeped in the 4-H tradition for generations - had never seen approached.

After investing a lot of sweat and, perhaps, blood into the fair over the hot week, tears punctuated the chapter of this year's fair for 4-H youth.

"I was just overcome," Larissa Rupnow said, motioning the tears that rolled down her face with her index fingers as she attempted to depict the emotions she experienced in that moment.

After all was said and done, this year's bonus auction brought in $82,000 for the youth, including $22,000 earmarked by the youth for the new fairground buildings.

In that moment, it was more than just a building they were fundraising for - it was the future of rural America in a world where producers say each succeeding generation becomes a little more removed from their way of life.

"What he did totally blew me sideways," said Matt Naberhaus, a Sac County Fair Board member and the Schaller farmer who has made the winning bid on Justin Rupnow over the last few years. "As a fair board, we're always trying to work toward getting kids invested in what we do and understand the fair is for them. We always hope that things like this will happen, that the kids will be the ones taking the next step."

And it gives him hope for the future of places like Sac County.

"We're so displaced from agriculture," he said. "Every generation gets a little further removed from where your food comes from."

With the removal comes increased ignorance and, in turn, less understanding of why farmers do what they do.

Justin Rupnow always won him over at the bonus auction, Naberhaus said, because of what the 4-H'er has displayed with each passing fair season: pride in his animals, helping others in need and doing so without being critical of them. Each quality remains a tenet of 4-H that he said makes kids growing up in it well-rounded members of society able to respect other humans, animals and differences in opinion.

"He's a good kid," the sponsor said.

With a substantial chunk of the fundraising accomplished in one day, Naberhaus said the fair board will continue to raise money and look at solicited building designs with the hope of completing the project within the next one to five years.

"It tells us exactly what type of leaders those kids are," said Erpelding, who has worked with Rupnow since he was in third grade. "That could be money in their pockets, and they didn't want that."

Some of the ones who donated were graduating, meaning they wouldn't even show animals under the roof of the new building, where constant flooding that exists now will hopefully be fixed.

"That speaks to the high volume of generosity in Sac County and 4-H'ers," she said.

"(The rate at which) funds come in will determine how fast we can do this," Naberhaus said.

That last Saturday in July was a head start if they ever saw one.

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