Like many children, J.J. Carbonara works hard at the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair.
Every morning, starting before dawn, he spends about five hours in the stables caring for his cows, sheep, pigs and goats. He puts in more hours at night — long days for 11-year-old arms and legs.
All the while, as his big sister tends to her animals, she stands by his side.
She always has at the fair — especially nine years ago when he was 100 miles away.
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Michelle Carbonara was 11 herself. Her brother was 2 and fighting leukemia at Geisinger Medical Center. The 2004 Grange Fair rolled around, usually a happy time for the family from Pinedell Farm near Millheim.
But that year, they arrived under a dark cloud.
J.J. had been diagnosed earlier that summer. His sister wanted to help him some way, any way, but the adults said she was too young.
Don’t tell that to a farm girl responsible for 250-pound hogs and Jersey dairy cattle several times her size.
“Being told you can’t do something when you’re young is just something you don’t want to hear,” said Michelle, now a Penn State junior studying animal science. “You want to come up with something that proves them wrong.”
Her idea became part of fair lore.
On her own, she decided to donate the Junior Livestock Auction proceeds from selling Spud, one of her hogs, to a children’s cancer research organization. She sent a letter to fair officials, who approved her plan.
Word spread, and the day of the sale, bidders were ready. Spud, worth about $130, finally went for $6,200 to applause and tears.
Michelle’s all grown up, but fairgoers still remember her triumphant moment.
“I’ve had a couple of people who came up and said, ‘You’re the girl who sold the pig and donated the money to cancer research,’ ” she said.
J.J. knows what a special sister he has. He carries the story of her love inside his heart, where disease once ravaged his blood.
“I’m really thankful for my sister doing that for me,” he said.
His chemotherapy days, the tough times, are four years behind him now. He won. He’s healthy, strong, showing no traces of his former struggle other than IV port scars on his chest and neck.
A green John Deere cap perched on his head, he washes, clips, brushes and feeds his fair animals gladly. He owes a debt to four-legged creatures. While receiving treatment, he used to play with dogs brought to cheer up young cancer patients.
“Animals got me through it,” he said.
These days, his support network includes Taffy, a Jersey junior yearling he has walked into the kitchen back home — just for the fun of it. Among her neighbors are Jerseys Twilla and Twinkie, his first cow, also known as “Tastykake.”
Farley and Merona reside in the sheep pens, not far from Babe and Charlie rooting around with the rest of the pigs. Toodles and Clarabelle share a goat stall.
He cares for them with knowledge gleaned from 4-H cattle, sheep, goat and swine clubs. They teach him a lot, but they can’t top his personal instructors. There’s his mother, Lynne Carbonara, whose eyes glisten at the thought of how lucky she is to have her two children at yet another fair.
And then there’s Michelle, who isn’t too big to curl up with her “lovebugs,” as she refers to her fair cows. She still helps her brother.
“It’s fun to give him some helpful hints along the way,” she said.
He’ll never forget one lesson that had nothing to do with feed or clippers. A donated hog long ago showed him what one caring person, even a small one, can accomplish.
“My sister wasn’t doing it just for me,” he said. “She also was doing it for all the other kids.”