Portrait of Debbie

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“What’s your favorite color?” This random question was the first thing Debbie asked me when we were introduced. I replied, “Blue.” I was Debbie’s assigned volunteer for the spring semester at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding Center in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Debbie was a middle-aged woman who suffered from mental retardation. She had shoulder-length auburn hair, vivid blue eyes, and a huge heart. When Debbie arrived on the next week, it was impossible to overlook that she was sporting blue from head to toe. Even her socks were a brilliant royal blue! When asked about her choice of attire, she simply looked directly at me and gave me the widest grin I had ever seen. I couldn’t help but mirror her with a grin equally as wide.
I quickly discovered that Debbie had trouble following even simple directions. She would often dig her heels in and refuse to do as the instructor told her. Some days she would refuse to hold the reins. Although she didn’t have much control of the horse, Debbie always had fun while riding and would make everyone laugh. I found myself looking forward to my weekly encounters with her. No matter what happened during the Tuesday before class, I was immediately put in a good mood by Debbie’s contagious attitude. As Debbie got more comfortable with me as her volunteer, she started to take my advice when it came to her riding. I was no longer the broken record nagging her to hold on to the reins or follow the rules of the game we were playing. Debbie even started to take charge and soon I no longer had to walk beside the horse. She would tell the horse what she wanted him to do, and he would do it.
When classes at High Hopes end for the semester, there is always a horse show. Debbie practiced with much determination in the weeks leading up to the show. When the day came, I arrived early to make sure I was in time to watch her ride. I noticed she was nervous before her turn, so I gave her a few words of encouragement. She took in every word I said and that I had faith in her gave her confidence.
When she entered the ring, she rode so beautifully I felt myself fighting back tears. She had come so far since the day we first met. In my five years of volunteering at High Hopes, I had never felt such a connection with a rider. It wasn’t just about her improved riding skills; it was the way she carried herself around the horses. She felt confident around them which was a rare feeling for her in the difficult life she led. The fact that I had been a part of this change really inspired me.
After she completed her class, I was immensely proud of her. The expression she wore as she exited the show ring was well worth all the hours I had spent working with her. After the five others in the class had ridden, the announcers voice came booming through the megaphone. Debbie had won second place. I will never forget her face as she walked out into the middle of the ring to receive her prize. Judging solely from her smile, anyone would have been convinced she held a blue ribbon in her hand. And in my eyes, she did.





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