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4-H lessons leading her to teach: Gilhousen prepares for final fair

Emma Gilhousen graduated from Dakota County 4-H program after 10 years where she said she cultivated lifelong friendships, learned life skills and entered countless fair projects. She is shown with her beloved pet rabbits she competed with at the fair, Theo and Pepper. Kara Hildreth / Contributor

Ten years ago Emma Gilhousen could not have imagined how Dakota County 4-H would influence her life.

Gilhousen, 19, will "graduate" from the 4-H program this summer. This will be her last Dakota County Fair, Aug. 6-12.

She said being a part of a 4-H club has given her a place to cultivate lifelong friendships while working on building life skills. She recalls numerous fair projects, but her favorite two have been caring for rabbits Theo and Pepper.

"I have 20 projects left to do for this year and I keep adding more projects," Gilhousen said.

As a young girl who loved soft, furry rabbits, she said it was these gentle creatures who led her to join Dakota County 4-H.

"I was always wanting a pet rabbit for years and I was obsessed when I was little and I was begging my parents to get one, and I really wanted a pet and finally in third grade, they caved and I got one," Gilhousen said.

Her first rabbit, Buddy, was a mini Rex with velvety fur and long ears with brown and white spots. Later, she added Pepper. Her next bunny was the sweet, speckled Theo, named after the popular cartoon chipmunk because he had chubby cheeks.

As a Lakeville city girl, her parents allowed her to raise her rabbits indoors and spoil them, she said. Although the bunnies liked to play outdoors during warm months.

"One of the misconceptions is that you have to live on a farm or you have to have a cow, and we did not know about 4-H until getting the rabbits and that propelled me into 4-H," she said.

After raising and competing with rabbits at the fair with her brother, she decided to go deeper into the programs. She joined her brother in training rabbits and competed in the agility course challenges through 4-H.

"In the courses, the rabbits learned to hop over PVC pipes and go through tunnels," she said.

Pepper will be 10 years this October. "He is an old guy now who likes to lick you like a dog and he likes to lick salt off your hand," she said.

She trained Pepper to use a litter box like a cat.

"Pepper is the nicest rabbit ever and he never bites," she said, pointing out his tiny white hairs on the base of his body.

Pepper, who was once a half-pound overweight at fair time competition, was disqualified. Gilhousen recalled one little girl at the fair booth made a comment that made her smile.

"She said, 'A fat bunny is a happy bunny' and I will never forget that and I still bring him to the fair," Gilhousen said.

"People know him and say "Hi, Pepper, Hi, Emma," she said with a laugh because he is so well known at the fair.

Beyond bunnies

Two years ago she earned a purple grand champion ribbon at Dakota County Fair for a fine arts creative project where she folded pages in a book.

"I folded a chapter in the book into a word—the word was "Imagine"—and it was very labor intensive but it was super fun because the book looked cool with blue pages," she said. This project earned a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair.

She also brought a wildlife biology project to the State Fair — her brother's snake. Another year she entered a floral arrangement.

Gilhousen began her membership in Huskies 4-H Club. Later she was part of creating a club with neighbors and friends called Bright Lights 4-H Club in Dakota County.

All the exposure to learning in 4-H influenced her to consider education as a career. Now she is studying secondary math education at University of Minnesota-Duluth.

"I have loved learning about teaching so far, and I was involved with another branch of 4-H called 4-H Youth Teaching Youth that is like a club at high school," she explained. She traveled to elementary schools to talk to fourth-graders about peer pressure, tobacco and alcohol.

"I could get my feet wet and try it out, and it was chance for me to find out if I really liked teaching and talking in front of students," she said.

She is the 2018 Extension summer intern at Dakota County Fair.