Prior to Wednesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the Kane County Fair, much of the activity had already been under way for days, from setting up the numerous carnival rides, games and food trucks to judging 4-H club entries from hundreds of youths around the Kane County area.
Under barn roofs and in air-conditioned showrooms at the county fairgrounds in St. Charles, thousands of 4-H participants' entries have already been judged, and more will be judged until Sunday when the fair closes. The Kane County Fair is a large outlet for the 4-H clubs, and a main event of the year.
From art and sewing to ecology and livestock, 4-H Club members who worked on projects for months were out and about Wednesday, talking to judges and friends alike about their projects and passions. In the rabbit barn, 17-year-old Rachel Sorenson of Sugar Grove was busy cleaning out the cages of her eight rabbits in preparation for rabbit judging Thursday. It is Sorenson's fourth year bringing her mini lap rabbits to the fair, and she hopes to have a repeat win with her year-old rabbit, Fernando.
"When I went to the fair when I was little and first saw them I thought they were really cute," she said. "And now I'm really into the competition and seeing how it turns out. (My friends) say I'm crazy."
But when Fernando won reserve grand champion last year, which means second overall in his class, Sorenson knew breeding was worth it.
Kane County Fair Board Chairman Larry Breon said this kind of learning by doing is what 4-H is all about. Breon has served as chair for 19 years, and been on the board for more than 40 years. A former 4-H'er, Breon said the value of the club and the outlet the fair brings is beneficial.
"We have a generation of children thinking milk comes from Jewel," he said.
Breon said 4-H members who work with livestock especially are getting experience for life. He hopes fairgoers will have a similar learning experience.
"People can get a look at some of these animals, some they've never seen up close," he said. "It hasn't been that long since people were farming but we're so far removed from it now."
Aside from animals, many 4-H members are focused on small projects focusing not just on domestic life, but the world around them. Natural resources has been a popular topic for 4-H members in the past few years, said 4-H Challengers leader Sarah Holmberg.
Holmberg's daughter Lisa, 14, submitted four natural resources projects this year, earning her two grand champion placements and two reserve grand champion ribbons. As grand champion, Lisa is eligible for the State Fair in Springfield in August. Though Lisa is excited about her placement, she said the true joy has been learning through her projects.
"A lot of 4-H is about learning how to learn," she said. "It teaches how to have an open mind, learn different things and talk to professionals. For the environment, if we don't have a safe and protected environment, we're going to have no resources -- no trees, no animals. We rely on our resources more than people think."
Sarah Holmberg oversees a club of about 35 youths, and through the experience she said she has seen hundreds of children grow into contributing adults.
"I just love the fact that kids can learn by doing and they can get out of it what they want," she said. "Whatever kids are interested in they can take it as far as they want."