By Shelley Grieshop
MINSTER -- Ten-year-old Theo Schlater has an edge in the 4-H judging competition, and it doesn't have anything to do with the fluffy rabbits he's showing.
His biggest fan and critic is his grandmother, Barb Osterloh of Minster, who is in her 29th year as a 4-H adviser for the club Stitch 'N Snack. The 68-year-old mother of six and grandmother of 15 also has judged numerous 4-H projects at surrounding county fairs and is considered by many to be an expert in the field.
"Work on that book," Osterloh advises her grandson, referring to the information on rabbits he's accumulated. This is his first year in 4-H.
He will take two New Zealand rabbits and two market pens to the Auglaize County Fair next week, from an array of 32 hares kept by the family. Schlater was judged earlier this week on the rabbits and a sewing project -- a colorful pair of pajama shorts and a matching bag accented by a Spongebob Squarepants T-shirt purchased at store.
Judging results have not yet been released. The Stitch 'N Snack 4-H Club is an inherited rite of passage for the Osterlohs and their extended family. Barb Osterloh's children all were members of the club, and when her grandchildren became old enough they, too, joined the Minster-area organization or one near where they reside.
Theo Schlater's mother, Lori, said she simply told her son, "This is what you're going to do," when he became old enough for the program last year.
Six years ago, with no children of her own in the club, Lori Schlater became an adviser alongside her mother. All four of Osterloh's daughters now are 4-H advisers in various counties.
Both Lori Schlater and her sister, Carolyn, still laugh as they recall taking heifers to the fair and being dragged across the arena by the runaway livestock.
"Then there was that one year when I forget the slip to wear underneath the loungewear I sewed," Lori Schlater says.
One of the 4-H mothers graciously drove her back home in lightning speed to retrieve it.
"It's a wonder we didn't get picked up for speeding," she laughs.
When judging week arrives each year, club mothers became everyone's mother, helping out in any way needed, she adds.
Lori Schlater did a variety of projects in her day from sewing (her mother's specialty) to photography, which she competed in at the state fair. Both talents have helped her as a mother and in her career as a journalist/photographer for a health food company, she says.
Osterloh says, as a judge, it's not difficult to know when a child conquered a project alone or had a lot of help. Those who talk extensively on their subject are more likely to have done their "homework" alone, she says.
"As advisers we tell the kids to keep talking," when being interviewed by the judge, she says. "It's not a good sign when a judge feels like they have to pull the information out of the child."
The 4-H program has changed dramatically over the years, Osterloh says. Clubs used to be divided by children with interests in either livestock or home economic interests. Today, each club is quite diversified.
Also, years ago only rural -- mostly farm -- children were involved in 4-H. Today, boys and girls with various backgrounds enter the program and 4-H membership across the country has grown dramatically. Stitch 'N Snack has doubled its membership in 30 years, Osterloh says.
The women agree that 4-H projects can be challenging to some children as well as their parents. But the end result is worth it, they believe. Osterloh doubts she could have convinced her own daughters to take up sewing or other such activities if they hadn't done it for 4-H.
"It's a good way for parents and kids to come together," she adds.