By Geoff Fox
RIVERVIEW – Joshua Holmes walked into Riverview High School and hugged a woman working at the desk in the Student Affairs building.
He walked down a hallway and burst into a grin. Waiting outside a classroom was Dan Hamilton, his former agriculture teacher.
Joshua’s gait quickened.
“You got fed again,” Hamilton said, as Josh gave him a warm hug.
Hamilton pointed to both of their bellies.
“Are you trying to catch up with me?” he asked with a laugh.
Joshua, 31, is a 2009 graduate of Riverview; as a middle-schooler, he was the first special-needs student to participate in the school’s agriculture program. He and his mother, Gayle, often return to the school for football games and to visit former teachers.
Joshua, who has Down syndrome, loves football (specifically, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quarterback Jameis Winston), his iPad, going to the Ruskin Family Drive-In Theater, watching professional wrestling and raising cows.
His participation in Riverview High’s agriculture program extended into adulthood, and the school’s agriculture program for special-needs students is called Sassy Cows for Savvy Kids, because every cow he raised was named Sassy; the program now includes 25 students.
“Josh is an inspiration,” said Karen Hamilton, an agriculture teacher at Riverview and wife of Dan Hamilton. “It’s because of him that we now have a class just for special-needs students. He started off raising a dwarf rabbit, but he was one of the first special-needs students who got involved with cows.
“People think that children with Down syndrome can’t learn, but that’s absolutely not true. They learn to mix and measure the milk formula (for cows), weigh the feed and weigh the cows. They keep track of how much money it costs to raise the animals, and they learn how to talk to people and send thank-you notes.”
Gayle Holmes said Josh even became adept at shearing the cows before they were shown at venues such as the Hillsborough County Fair, Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City and the Florida State Fair.
Working with the animals, Gayle said, also helped Josh learn to persevere. At his first showing at a fair, he finished last.
The following year, he placed first.
“When I gave him his prize package, he immediately put on his ribbon and threw the money on the ground,” Karen Hamilton said.
The school’s agriculture program is funded through grants and donations (which are always accepted), and farmers from around the state lease cows to the school. Some even provide feed.
Dan Hamilton said the program benefits special-needs students in many ways.
“They develop a self-worth, self-esteem and a little bit of the limelight, being in front of all those people at arenas,” Hamilton said. “They’re not ‘the special kids’ anymore, they’re somebody.”
Working with the animals helped Joshua overcome his bashful nature, he said. The first year he won a prize, Joshua was overcome with nerves when it was time for him to give a post-competition speech. He was flanked by two of his classmates, one who held the microphone and another who told him what to say.
“The next year, we had to take the microphone away from him,” Dan Hamilton said.
And the last year he won a top prize, he dropped to his knees and asked a girl to go to the prom, Karen Hamilton said.
She said yes.
Joshua became so adept at raising and showing cattle that he earned a degree from Florida’s Future Farmers of America program.
“Of about 18,000 kids in the program, usually 200 or 300 of them get a degree each year,” Dan Hamilton said. “That puts him among the cream of the crop.”
Gayle Holmes said the program helped mold Joshua into the respectful, loving young man he is today.
Wherever he goes, he offers hugs to those who know him, although he can still be bashful around strangers.
“It doesn’t matter where we are, it could be Riverview or Tampa – a lot of people know Josh,” Gayle Holmes said. “He just has that quality.”