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Tragedy yields the greatest prize


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Generous assist: Animals that participated in the 4-H show Friday came from Santa Claus Alpacas. Lu Heiney of the farm in Fillmore, Ind., attended the show with Susie Melton, who lost 23 animals when a barn on her farm caught fire in February.
Generous assist: Animals that participated in the 4-H show Friday came from Santa Claus Alpacas. Lu Heiney of the farm in Fillmore, Ind., attended the show with Susie Melton, who lost 23 animals when a barn on her farm caught fire in February.

A new bond: Mattthew Matos (cuddling with Kodiak) was hit hard by the death of his favorite alpaca, Boots, in the fire last February. But he worked diligently with his new friend, donated by Santa Claus Alpacas. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
A new bond: Mattthew Matos (cuddling with Kodiak) was hit hard by the death of his favorite alpaca, Boots, in the fire last February. But he worked diligently with his new friend, donated by Santa Claus Alpacas. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)


GREENFIELD — Glancing up from the yellow ribbon in his hand, Matthew Matos flashed his brother a quick smile and held up five fingers – fifth place.

Allowing just enough time for a quick photo, Matthew went back to carefully examining his award.

The prize was just one sign of success for the boy in the llama and alpaca project at this year’s Hancock County 4-H Fair after a particularly tumultuous start.

A barn fire in late February claimed the lives of 23 alpacas at the home of Wayne and Susie Melton, including Boots, the alpaca 11-year-old Matthew showed in 4-H last year and treated like a pet.

For Matthew, who has autism, the loss was especially great. He had named Boots and bonded with the animal, and finding a replacement was difficult.

Aside from the fifth-place ribbon Matthew earned in his division and the third-place prize he won in the costume contest earlier this week, the rewards for the family have been many.

The project has built the boy’s confidence, and Matthew has become increasingly verbal since he began working with the Meltons’ alpacas, his mother, Michelle Matos, said.

“I think it’s a non-threatening way for him to just kind of be himself,” she said. “He looks forward to coming.”

Breaking the news to Matthew that Boots had died was difficult, she said.

“He was sad, but we told him Boots was in heaven,” she said. “Then, he was OK with it. Someone told me, ‘Well, what if Boots didn’t go to heaven?’ I said, ‘Well, Jesus can handle it.’”

Susie Melton, who lends alpacas to 4-H’ers who don’t have farm animals but still want to show, broke into a smile as Matthew, wearing his signature black rubber boots, entered the arena.

She unfolded a homemade card he had given her that morning. It read “Thanks for letting me use Kodiak, and you are cute.” It included a picture of the animal with the label, “Llama. Best I could draw.”

“To me, this is what’s important,” Melton said. “That’s what matters.”

Over the past two years, Melton said she has seen Matthew come out of his shell while working with Kodiak.

“I have to feel the animal senses something,” Melton said of the bond between the two. “I think it’s made a big change in (Matthew). He’s definitely more outgoing.”

Melton was joined Friday by Lu Heiney of Santa Claus Alpacas in Fillmore, who donated alpacas to replace those lost in the fire.

Melton invited Heiney to watch the children with their animals this week at Sunday’s costume contest and Friday’s llama and alpaca show.

It was a bit of a reunion for Heiney.

“She walked in the barn the other night and picked out almost every one of (the alpacas she donated),” Melton said. “She knows all of them.”

Though Heiney has 162 alpacas on her farm, she said she isn’t one who becomes detached from her business.

“All mine are pets,” she laughed.

Matthew’s alpaca was the first of Heiney’s to show in the junior division.

The animal’s name was originally Kodak, short for Kodak Moment, but when the young 4-H’er pronounced it Kodiak, no one had the heart to correct him.

And so, Kodiak, it is.

By the time the fair rolled around, Matthew, in many ways, was just like any other 4-H’er in the ring, especially when it came time to announce the awards.

“He gets very attached to the idea of winning,” his father, Melvin Matos, said with a smile. “I’ve been explaining to him today, if he just gets a merit ribbon, that’s a great accomplishment.”

But Friday, Matthew led Kodiak, a tiny 8-month old alpaca, around the ring with ease, demonstrating his ability to direct the animal through obstacles including hay bales, balloons and a kiddy pool.

His parents watched with pride from the bleachers as Matthew carefully guided Kodiak from station to station. Aside from the fifth-place ribbon Matthew earned in his division and the third-place prize he won in the costume contest earlier this week, the rewards for the family have been many.

The project has built the boy’s confidence, and Matthew has become increasingly verbal since he began working with the Meltons’ alpacas, his mother, Michelle Matos, said.

“I think it’s a non-threatening way for him to just kind of be himself,” she said. “He looks forward to coming.”

Breaking the news to Matthew that Boots had died was difficult, she said.

“He was sad, but we told him Boots was in heaven,” she said. “Then, he was OK with it. Someone told me, ‘Well, what if Boots didn’t go to heaven?’ I said, ‘Well, Jesus can handle it.’”

Susie Melton, who lends alpacas to 4-H’ers who don’t have farm animals but still want to show, broke into a smile as Matthew, wearing his signature black rubber boots, entered the arena.

She unfolded a homemade card he had given her that morning. It read “Thanks for letting me use Kodiak, and you are cute.” It included a picture of the animal with the label, “Llama. Best I could draw.”

“To me, this is what’s important,” Melton said. “That’s what matters.”

Over the past two years, Melton said she has seen Matthew come out of his shell while working with Kodiak.

“I have to feel the animal senses something,” Melton said of the bond between the two. “I think it’s made a big change in (Matthew). He’s definitely more outgoing.”

Melton was joined Friday by Lu Heiney of Santa Claus Alpacas in Fillmore, who donated alpacas to replace those lost in the fire.

Melton invited Heiney to watch the children with their animals this week at Sunday’s costume contest and Friday’s llama and alpaca show.

It was a bit of a reunion for Heiney.

“She walked in the barn the other night and picked out almost every one of (the alpacas she donated),” Melton said. “She knows all of them.”

Though Heiney has 162 alpacas on her farm, she said she isn’t one who becomes detached from her business.

“All mine are pets,” she laughed.

Matthew’s alpaca was the first of Heiney’s to show in the junior division.

The animal’s name was originally Kodak, short for Kodak Moment, but when the young 4-H’er pronounced it Kodiak, no one had the heart to correct him.

And so, Kodiak, it is.

By the time the fair rolled around, Matthew, in many ways, was just like any other 4-H’er in the ring, especially when it came time to announce the awards.

“He gets very attached to the idea of winning,” his father, Melvin Matos, said with a smile. “I’ve been explaining to him today, if he just gets a merit ribbon, that’s a great accomplishment.”

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