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Jessie trotted, dust plumes lifting around his hooves. I gripped the saddle’s hold bar, securing Jaidyn to the saddle with my forearm and keeping her feet in the stirrups. She flailed her arms, hurling the plastic red cup from her hand. It landed in the dirt–back to square one. I pressed the cup into her palms again. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four. She could clutch the cup for approximately five seconds before flinging it to the ground. In our first lessons she had dropped the cup after a second or two.
I began working at the Shea Therapeutic Horseback Riding Center as part of National Charity League when I was thirteen. I’d learned that, as a volunteer, I’d have the opportunity to work with disabled riders during their hippotherapy sessions on the horses. Initially, I was concerned when I met Jaidyn. She was five years old with Rhett syndrome: strapped into a toddler stroller, attempting to pull her hands to her mouth, and mumbling nonsensical syllables. She would come to the barn outfitted in a pink riding helmet with a rhinestone sticker crown on the front, pink flower arm braces, and pink jeans and shirts. She was unable to recognize me. She was unable to walk on her own. She was unable to verbally communicate.
We spent an hour a week together, practicing hand-over-hand exercises while she rode Jessie in hopes that, one day, she’d have the ability to walk down a hallway without assistance, stand and brush her teeth, or pull on her own jeans. In the early weeks I struggled to grasp the reality that I could not flip a switch to provide her with basic skills for self-sufficiency. Some days at the barn, she would be completely unresponsive, which would force deviations from the set lessons. On others I’d be greeted with a toothless smile. I’d push Black-Eyed Susans into her French braids or we’d feed cut carrots to the miniature horse Benny.
After five months, she buried her face in my stomach and hugged me. After seven, I witnessed her first unassisted steps at the barn. She held a cup for twelve seconds and recognized several Sign Language words. Seeing improvement from a child many would consider untreatable with conventional forms of therapy made me realize that, for the rest of my life, I want to serve those who cannot serve themselves. By utilizing my passion for writing and the English language to assist these children and adults, I can alleviate the stresses caused by their handicaps and work towards making them more self-sufficient. Linguistics and Speech Pathology are two areas within English and Communication Studies that I have become fascinated with. In the next stage of my education, combining my community service work with English research will give me new ways to transform the lives of people like Jaidyn.
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