In January of 2008 Helen was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder. A secondary diagnosis of PDD-NOS was soon to follow. Since even before that day our lives have been a constant barrage of therapies, anything to help us achieve the quality of life we so desperately want for Helen.
I remember hearing Fern Bonchek for the first time on WFYI’s “Community Minute” talking about PALS. Something clicked. As soon as I could, I called and scheduled Helen’s first lesson. I kept telling myself to go into it with no expectations, that way if we made little or no progress from the venture, I wouldn’t be let down. I never will forget Helen’s first lesson. Here was the child that I’d watch fall so many times, that couldn’t keep pace with her peers, whose self-esteem was hanging by a thread was sitting strong in that saddle, smiling, confident. We have never looked back since.
As I watched Helen’s dream unfold, I decided that it was time to chase one of my own and became a PALS rider as well. Helen and I ride together, my special time with my beautiful girl. I cannot begin to express all that this organization means to us. To all the PALS staff and donors, we cannot thank you enough.
As a current PALS rider I write to share with you the experiences I have had as a participant in the therapeutic riding program at PALS as well as those of my Mom Karen, who is also a PALS volunteer, and to also demonstrate how truly necessary this program is to individuals like myself and others within our local community. I was born with spina bifida in 1975 and have been using a wheelchair all my life. Despite my physical limitations I have a full life—holding a full time job, driving, maintaining a home, and working out with a trainer at my local gym. My Mom has always been a huge supporter, and in many cases my cheerleader through life, and when she recommended I begin horseback riding I was hesitant at best. While a fear of horses had kept me from even considering the possibility in the past, Mom’s experiences as a volunteer at PALS, her own love of horses, and her true belief in the benefits of participating created a pretty influential argument. She would always tell me, “I’ve always heard that a person who can’t walk, if they ride a horse that will be the closest thing to walking they will ever feel.” Deep down – I know she wanted me to experience that feeling.
When my Mom describes watching me and my PALS horse Cody Too making our way into the arena the first time she’s often quite emotional. It’s a moment she describes as similar to watching one’s child take their very first steps—an event she notes overwhelmed her with feelings of extreme joy, pride, and admiration. For my entire life my wheelchair has always been my mode of transportation. “Walking” away from it on a horse has not only become symbolic of the freedom PALS has given me, but the direction I feel my life has taken since I began taking part in the program. My Mom jokes that soon I’ll be “running” from my wheelchair.
I hate to admit it, but overall my Mom was right. I overcame my fear of horses with support from not only my Mom but my instructor, Taryn and the PALS volunteers. There’s never any doubt, on Taryn’s part, that I can do what she asks of me, she pushes me to find a place inside me that I didn’t know existed. In just three sessions I’ve moved from relying on sidewalkers for physical, and sometimes emotional support, to riding totally by myself. As a volunteer, Mom will tell you that there is nothing she could do solely for herself that would match the satisfaction she receives from being of value to the riders, and I think this is true of the over 150 volunteers that generously serve PALS on a weekly basis. Without their support, experiences like mine just wouldn’t be possible.
As longtime Bloomington residents my Mom and I have experienced firsthand the difficulties many individuals with disabilities face finding local activities or outlets that offer something to positively influence daily life. We are incredibly thankful to have found a program such as PALS right in our own backyard, and truly see the benefits it has provided to individuals like myself in the Bloomington community looking for therapeutic services.