In an arena filled with young people honoring those who have paved the way before them, Emily Cooper, 16, of Prague, showcased her animals at the Oklahoma Youth Expo just days after losing her parents.
Emily Cooper and her sister, Hallie Cooper, 11, lost their mother, Crystal Cooper, to an illness on March 4. Their father, John D. Cooper, died March 5 in a car accident.
“It’s unreal how much support they’ve gotten from FFA chapters across the state,” said Wendy Rich, agriculture teacher at Prague High School.
Other supporters have included ranches, businesses and families from across the state.
Rich and fellow agriculture teacher, Tanner Thompson, have been active in organizing fundraisers for the sisters through social media websites.
Emily Cooper, who raises sheep and goats, exhibited in a county show on the afternoon of her mother’s death and scored highest in her category.
“A lot of this is about her continuing with what her parents started,” Rich said.
Emily Cooper is among 14,000 entrants at this year’s expo at State Fair Park, Executive Director Tyler Norvell said. At least one student from each of Oklahoma’s 77 counties will participate.
What began nearly a century ago as a way for farmers to gather and discuss farm production techniques has grown over the years into a family tradition and way of life from which students learn vital life skills.
“We keep it going because it fuels our state’s agricultural industry, and it gives these kids life skills they can’t get elsewhere,” Norvell said. Among those skills are self-discipline, responsibility, integrity and money management.
“When you see a 9-year-old girl leading a 1,300-pound animal onto this arena, you have to know that it took her months to prepare that animal. Everything from feeding it and training it to raising the money to care for it,” Norvell said.
Norvell, 30, grew up on a farm in Amber and spent his spring breaks beginning at age 9 at the Oklahoma Youth Expo. He wrote his first check for his animals when he was 8, he said.
This year’s show continues through Friday and will have an estimated $24 million impact on Oklahoma City’s economy, according to the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Showcased animals include hogs, sheep, goats and cattle.
In each category judging is based on the physique of the animal or presentation of the student.
Students who are in grades 3 through 12 and active in 4-H or FFA can participate.
The top winners receive scholarships to Oklahoma colleges.
“This is a nonprofit organization, so we rely heavily on our sponsors,” Norvell said. “Our sponsors tell us that yes, they want these kids to learn life skills and be educated, but they also want them to go to college here in Oklahoma, to get jobs and become contributing citizens here in Oklahoma.”
In an arena filled with cowboy boots and hats, shiny belt buckles and farm animals, Norvell said the group, despite its enormity, is like family.
That proved especially true this year for Emily and Hallie Cooper.