Take the time to ‘fill the boot’

Published 9:24 pm Wednesday, August 8, 2012

When I was younger, I read a book called “Misty,” which sparked a lifetime love of horses. This, of course, led to me begging my mother on a weekly basis for riding lessons. Eventually my dream came true, and I began riding at a barn near my house.

The barn required students to have a hand in all aspects of the operation. Lessons included grooming, caring for tack and mucking stalls. We were even required to work with a special group of students, those who took part in the barn’s therapeutic horseback riding program.

I look fondly back at my time at the barn — less fondly on mucking stalls — but I loved the few days we worked with the therapy students. We helped Down syndrome students through exercises on horseback that were designed to help with coordination. We encouraged autistic kids to talk to the horses as they groomed them, getting them to work on communication skills.

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But my favorite pupil by far was a young girl named Alice, who had a form of muscular dystrophy. She was a little wisp of a girl who was wheelchair-bound and could use only one hand, but she had such a joy about her that seemed to fill the stable.

Alice loved horses. Unlike some of the students, she was fearless around them. She arrived early for her sessions so she would have time to wheel up the aisles and whisper to each of the horses. She also got a chance to groom and ride the same horse every week, an older mare named Butterscotch. And even though she often dropped the brush while grooming Butterscotch or had to be held up while riding, she never got frustrated.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance to find out what Alice would tell the horses when she arrived, because like many MD patients, she died young. It might have been something as simple as thanking them for providing her a freedom she never knew without them.

That’s why, to me, MD has always been one of the more heartbreaking conditions I’ve encountered. It traps a person otherwise filled to the brim with life inside a body that won’t allow them to live life fully.

So it’s really exciting to know that Suffolk firefighters on Wednesday began their annual Fill the Boot campaign to support the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Firefighters will be at 12 different locations around Suffolk through Friday to collect money for the nonprofit organization, which funds research, care, advocacy and education programs focused on the neuromuscular disease.

For a list of locations, click here.

Last year, firefighters in Hampton Roads raised nearly $210,000. This year, their goal is $250,000. I don’t think it’s too high a price to pay to help someone like Alice live more fully.