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Savage mom credits 4-H with saving her teenage daughter's life

Prior Lake American - 7/11/2018

A few years ago, Savage resident Natalie Drescher was suffering from severe depression.

At only 14 years old, Natalie - who has mild autism and juvenile arthritis - didn't see her life getting much better. She was eventually hospitalized for treatment.

"For medical reasons, I haven't been able to be a part of a lot of groups and clubs," Natalie said. "It got really hard because I felt like such an outcast."

Once she was discharged, Natalie's grandmother steered her in the direction of 4-H. At the first meeting she went to, the group was deciding on a location for the monthly outing.

Through a show of hands, the group settled on a trampoline park. But Natalie didn't raise her hand.

"They asked me why I wouldn't go and I was actually very shy at that time, so my mom said 'she can't attend because she has juvenile arthritis,'" Natalie said. "Not the parents, but the kids changed the whole event to sledding so I could attend it. It was so unique and I felt they wanted me to be a part of it."

From there, everything changed. Natalie dove into 4-H, found activities that interested her, made friends and became more of a "typical teenager," her mom Sally Drescher said.

"Before she was more involved (in 4-H), I did everything to get her out of her room ... the fact is that she had such a death wish and was so depressed," Sally said. "I really, honestly believe it saved her life."

Natalie started with the rabbits program. Though her anxiety made her fearful to compete, her peers assured her that she didn't necessarily have to compete but she could learn all she wanted to about rabbits.

"I have 16 rabbits I'm raising because of that experience," Natalie said. "I got very into rabbits. I now show them at the fair."

Though flipping rabbits is a part of showing them, Natalie is unable to due to her arthritis. But, 4-H worked around it by allowing someone else to flip her rabbits (which can weigh around 10 pounds) for her.

Natalie then got into shooting sports. Originally, she was using a gun sling that took some of the weight of the gun, but made it harder to aim.

"It was definitely not an advantage," Natalie said. "I actually shoot better without it (but) without it, I can only get about five, seven shots and then I become unsafe."

She now uses a different support to take away some of the weight of the gun. When Natalie was invited to 2018 National 4-H Shooting Sports Championships in late June, she wrote letters to leaders across the board to ensure she could use the support.

Originally, 4-H wanted to put her in a separate competition class.

"I said I would rather do my five shots for the day and be done than be in a separate class," Natalie said. "More than placing for me was to be competing at the same class. They worked very hard to make sure I was able to compete."

Natalie said she thought the other competitors would judge her for having to use a support. The second day of the competition, organizers had her talk a little bit about why she had to use the support.

"Instead of everyone questioning that, they applauded me," Natalie said.

In addition, Natalie said other 4-H members would frequently check in on her to see how she was doing, asking whether she was sore from shooting.

"It's like if you see that 4-H symbol, you're my family," Natalie said. "It's cool because everyone knows that experience. ... No one treated me like I was a delicate flower. They treated me the same."

While she was at nationals, an article in the local Grand Island Independent newspaper in Nebraska was written about her that said she had autism - a fact she had not yet shared with her fellow members.

"One of my biggest fears was telling people that I have autism because more than arthritis, autism can have a negative stigma to it," Natalie said. "I was a little nervous that if I said that, people would start treating me different. People just said, 'I love the article,' and no one treated me differently."

Natalie, who is now 17 years old, said 4-H has helped her with her anxiety, as well. She does online school, but plans to take a few classes at Normandale Community College after she graduates.

Because of her experience, Natalie is now involved in helping others with disabilities participate in 4-H programs, as well as mentoring younger 4-H members.

"It's like I have worth in the world now," Natalie said. "I'm running my disability. I care about placing like yeah, it'd be cool, but what I wanted to do was hopefully help kids with disabilities - it didn't matter what it was. Anything you feel holds you back can be a disability."


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