It isn't a term I use lightly or often. It loses its power when used carelessly, yet today, today, I can use no other word to describe Josiah's 4-H journey than life-changing.
Josiah just won the Illinois State 4-H Air Rifle Shoot held Saturday in Bloomington, but that isn't why his life is changed. His life is changed because of 4-H, one simple year of 4-H.
A year ago, Josiah, 17 years old then, joined the McLean County 4-H Shooting Sports Club so he could learn to shoot air rifles. Up until then, Josiah only ever spoke to members of his family. Period. You see, Josiah is a young man with high-functioning autism. He joined 4-H, and his life changed.
Josiah started in the beginner class at Central Illinois Precision Shooting last October as the only teenager. Though other teens might have been discouraged or disinterested, Josiah persevered. Under the direction of 4-H Shooting Sports Volunteers Kurt Willoughby and Joe Miller, Wednesday nights at the range became a routine. As his shooting improved, the bigger change came in Josiah's interaction with world around him.
Josiah began to engage with others.
"I couldn't believe the change in my child," said his mother, Rene.
Miller can barely speak of the young man without tearing up. The relationship has changed them both, he said. When the elder mentor shows up to see the teen, Josiah smiles.
"We spent a lot of one on one time at the range where I would carefully explain the whats, whys and the hows about air rifle training," Willoughby said. "Josiah took every word to heart."
Willoughby explained the heart of a marksman to the teenager. "I told him that when he walks into the range, the world stops and you become a shooter with one thing on your mind; to make the best shot possible. Nothing else matters at that point in time."
Josiah lived it just as his coach described. "When he would walk into the range," Willoughby said, "he was a different person."
Rene believes that part of Josiah's ability to do so well in the sport so quickly is that his autism allows him to focus on the singularity … one shot in the black circle.
In addition to shooting sports, Josiah took up blacksmithing in 4-H, exhibiting this year at the Illinois State Fair. It has led to a new career path for Josiah which his mother said he would not have found without 4-H. Under the direction of mentors, Josiah is progressing through the blacksmithing internship ranks and will soon study in North Carolina at the John C. Campbell Folk School.
Josiah recently conducted a blacksmithing demonstration where he interacted with the crowd. At one point he turned to the group and said, "Don't be afraid to ask me questions," Rene recalled. "He would never have spoken to anyone before his 4-H experience.
4-H gave us the opportunity for him to do this," Rene said. "I would encourage any parents of special-needs children to consider becoming active in 4-H."
"It's hard to put into words how I feel to know I have actually made a difference in someone's life," Willoughby said. "It's still hard to believe how much Josiah has accomplished in the short time that I have been working with him. Just to see his face makes my day every time."
For the record, Josiah doesn't like to compete; he doesn't like to "beat" someone else. He just wants to beat his last score.
Although Josiah walked away with the championship belt buckle prize Saturday, I'm pretty sure it's everyone else who won the bigger prize that day just by walking the path with a young man named Josiah.