Despite the fact that she lives in the heart of Manhattan, every Saturday, you’ll find Dee at a small stable. For the past three years, she’s volunteered with a therapeutic riding program, serving children with cognitive and physical disabilities including autism, blindness and cerebral palsy. Introduced to the program by a Fountain House staff worker, it’s a job that neatly combines her empathetic nature and her love of animals. She walks beside the children, encourages them to learn and have fun, and teaches them to groom the horses.
Dee is passionate about the riding program. “I love volunteering with the kids. My connection with them is very important to me. It’s such a privilege to share moments when the kids succeed and are proud of themselves. The kids love knowing that they are steering their horse. The person who leads the horse – a volunteer like me – won’t move forward until the child says to the horse, “Walk on.” For some children with autism who don’t speak much this was a challenge, but now they say it - “Walk on” - even if very softly.”
Dee knows something about meeting challenges. The onset of mental illness interrupted her life when she was in college. She struggled to do well in courses but soon dropped out. A series of hospitalizations followed, but she was determined to earn her degree. She returned to school, taking one or two courses at a time, and completed a BA in Sociology in twelve years.
Seven years ago, Dee applied to join Fountain House on the recommendation of her therapist and several friends who were also members. She was attracted both by the workday activity and the opportunity to socialize and make friends. She says of her involvement at Fountain House, “I loved working on the Education Unit, and the connection with people was a significant part of my overall stability. Music is an important part of my life, and I participated in a couple of bands that played on the weekends and performed for holidays. That was an amazing experience for me. I’ll always live with my illness, and maintaining my mental health is constant work. But I love Fountain House because it’s a place in the world where I fit in and belong and feel a part of.”
Last year, inspired by her work with the riding program, Dee began a Certificate in Education program focused on “Children with Special Needs.” With help from her staff worker in the Clerical Unit, support from staff and members from around the House, and funding from the Fountain House Scholarship Committee, she is now in her second semester and doing very well. She hopes to work part-time as a school aide helping kids with disabilities when she graduates.
Speaking about Fountain House, Dee says, “Fountain House helps you find doable steps to your goals. They help you figure out how to apply for school, if you don’t know how to on your own. They take you through the process in small steps and support you with concrete programs. You may be sick, but if you take your medications and manage the symptoms, you can be productive and take pride in doing something you never thought you could, until they got you thinking about it. They help you learn how to make a life you want to lead.”