Three o’clock came too soon. Janis blew her bangs skyward with a sigh. A new student started today, and her regular volunteer had cancelled at the last minute. It would be up to her and the new girl, a wannabe junior dressage champ, to handle the riding class.
Three volunteers had quit in the last month. Donations were down. Janis speared her pencil into the pen cup and reached for the scrapbook her students and parents had made her. This was her habit when she wondered why she continued living her dream of operating a therapeutic riding center. It highlighted the multiple achievements of the center and never failed to put a smile on Janis’ face—but not today.
The office door opened, and Karlene appeared. Her ears were stopped with music so loud Janis could understand the words. She closed the scrapbook with a thud.
Janis opened her mouth wide. “You’ll need to leave your iPod in here.”
Karlene yanked one earphone out. “Why?”
“When we have class we need to focus on the student.”
The other earphone came out and Karlene looked surprised. “Whoa, wait a second. You mean I, like, have to actually help with a class?”
Janis sighed. God, please help me. “Come out to the arena. We have things to do before the student arrives.”
She led the way through the back door to the large indoor arena and stalls. The smell of freshly turned dirt did not revive her spirit nor did she listen to the peaceful snort of the horses as they greeted her from their stalls. She turned right and lengthened her stride. Karlene’s shuffle sounded loud on the concrete aisle. They entered the tack room.
“Here’s everything we need for classes. Not just tack, but game supplies used in aiding the physical therapy. Today we have a new student, James, who has Down Syndrome. He’s three years old.”
Karlene sputtered. “I thought I was just helping with the horses – you know, like, grooming, feeding, riding. I didn’t know I would have to, like, do anything with kids.”
Janis lifted a tub of grooming supplies and placed it on her hip. “Don’t worry—Dapples will teach all you need to know about working with kids.” She nodded to a halter and lead rope hanging near the door. “Grab those and follow me.”
“Who’s Dapples?” Karlene asked when she crossed her arms on the half door of the stall Janis entered.
Janis set the box down and stroked the short neck of the dappled gray mare. “This is Dapples. She’s been with me six years and I couldn’t ask for a better horse to start students – or volunteers – on.”
“So…what do I do?”
“I’ll go over the rules while we’re tacking up. But there’s something important I want you to watch for.”
Janis sighed, thinking of her own volunteering years. How she wished she still had the passion she’d had then. Oh well. She would have to get through another day without it. “Watch James the first time he touches Dapples. See the change.”
When all the prep work was completed, Janis welcomed her new student and his mom into the arena. James seemed content in his mother’s arms until his caught sight of Dapples. His eyes widened and he cried out.
His mom patted his back, concern on her face. Janis motioned Karlene to lead Dapples to them. “James, this is Dapples. She’s really sweet and wants to be your friend. Would you like to pet her?”
Janis took James’ hand, moved it toward the large animal and helped his fingers touched the soft, well groomed hairs. She guided until he stroked the stubby neck on his own. His eyes widened, and a giggling smile illuminated his face.
His mom transferred him into Janis’ arms and they stepped toward Dapples’ nose. “See how big her eyes are, James? She’s looking right at you!”
James’ head rolled back, but Janis supported him as he found the balance to reach out and touch Dapples’ nose. Karlene stood in front of the horse, hands on her halter. Janis didn’t like what she read on the teen’s face. She won’t be here long. Discouragement filled Janis.
Twisting, James reached out and touched Karlene’s cheek as another giggle sounded. A half smile turned into a full one as Karlene’s shoulders relaxed and she met Janis’ eyes. “Cool,” she mouthed.
Janis basked in the joy returning to her own heart. The dream was still worth living.
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