Local businesses rally around teen battling Crohn’s disease

Sixteen-year-old Alesha Gustafson couldn't wait to get out of the hospital. It was the week of the Upper Peninsula State Fair, and she had spent all summer looking forward to selling her hog at the auction.

Sixteen-year-old Alesha Gustafson couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital. It was the week of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) State Fair, and she had spent all summer looking forward to selling her hog at the auction. She had spent countless hours raising the pig and preparing for this week. She is a member of the “When Pigs Fly and Cows Jump over the Moon” 4-H club in Menominee County, Michigan, and the fair has always been the highlight of her summer. Unfortunately, Alesha didn’t know if she’d be able to make it to the fair this year -- she had just gone through emergency surgery to have a portion of her intestines removed.

Battling Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects nearly 7,000 Americans, Alesha is familiar with hospital visits. The past few years have been difficult -- she experienced countless aches and pains as well as a rollercoaster of treatments and medications. This summer, however, had been the hardest; her body was telling her something wasn’t right. An MRI at a Milwaukee hospital confirmed her fears. She had an intestinal blockage, and emergency surgery was her only option.

“The doctors told us there would be a minimum five-day recovery, and that’s exactly what it was,” said Alesha’s mother, Brenda Gustafson. “Luckily we could get out of there and make it to the last day of the fair. We were just so happy to be there. None of us expected the enormous amount of support we received that day.”

Alesha sat in a wheelchair just outside the pen, beaming with gratitude and excitement despite her recent surgery. Her hog was the last of the evening to be auctioned, at a whopping 261 pounds.

“I put a lot of time into that pig. When I bought him, he was only 60 pounds. I named him Paisley and worked with him every day,” Alesha said. “It takes a lot of responsibility to raise a pig. You’ve got to feed it, clean up after it and practice walking. Even though I couldn’t go in the pen, I was still happy to be there.”

When the auctioneer began, bids immediately poured in. People were shouting from all directions. The bid continued to grow while people cheered and clapped. Alesha couldn’t believe the incredible response to her hog.

“When the price went over $10 a pound I started crying because nobody gets that much for a pig. I was really shocked,” she said. Her pig sold for a record breaking $13,000 -- $52 per pound. It was the most any hog had been sold for at the U.P. State fair and easily secured a spot in 4-H history.

Immediately following the auction, the auctioneer explained that businesses from all over the U.P. and even into Wisconsin had joined together to support Alesha. He went on to list off the participating businesses one by one.

“When the bids kept getting higher and higher, I was thinking, ‘Who is buying this pig?’ I couldn’t believe that anyone would pay that much,” Brenda said. “Then they started reading off all the names and I just couldn’t believe it. Everybody was in tears. Guys were crying. I still watch the video and tear up.”

Gary Johnson, a family friend and owner of Johnson Brothers Livestock, came up with the idea after Alesha’s father told him she was in the hospital. With the help of state Rep. Ed McBroom and the U.P. State Fair Advisory Committee, he was able to raise an astonishing amount of money for her hog. Fifty-two businesses had agreed to support Alesha.

“The morning of the auction, Gary went around and asked if they would donate $1 per pound. Then he recruited other people to help him gather more donations. It was crazy for him that day, I’m sure. We had no idea this was all happening,” Brenda said. “I am just overwhelmed by the response of our community. The way they all gathered together to do this was incredible. I still think about it every day.”

Alesha is a junior in high school and plans on saving the money for college. She says it is already in the bank. Although she isn’t set on where she wants to go to school after graduation, she does plan on studying to become a veterinarian or a pediatric registered nurse.

Those interested in joining 4-H as a member or volunteer should explore the Michigan 4-H website for more information.

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