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November 8, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
On Sarah Bowman's first day as a volunteer at the Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center, she met a scared young boy with autism. The horses frightened him, and he screamed and shook as he watched them trot. Each whinny made him recoil in fear. With his hands shoved deep in his pockets and tears streaming down his face, he pouted and refused to interact with others.
At that time, Bowman was an MU student majoring in animal sciences. She believed the riding center, which allows individuals with disabilities to ride horses for therapy, would be her first step to becoming a veterinarian. It wound up taking her in a completely different direction.
Throughout the next few weeks, Bowman helped coach away the boy’s fear. He trusted her, and by the end of their six weeks together, he would rush into her arms and tell her to get his horse because he couldn’t wait to ride.
Bowman soon decided working with people with disabilities would be better than her original plan.
Now 30, Bowman is the recreation specialist for the Adapted Community Recreation Program at Paquin Tower, an apartment complex for people with disabilities and those 62 or older. The program gives residents and the general public opportunities to play games and interact socially. People are allowed to come and go as they please, and no one is ever turned away.
She knew when she started working there that she had made the right career decision.
“I thought, ‘That’s it, this is where I want to be,’” Bowman says. “I feel like I can make a huge difference, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Each morning starts the same. Bowman sets out 40 cups of coffee for the employees and participants who will soon descend upon the room. She then sets out a puzzle, which provides early morning stimulation for her guests. As if the coffee didn’t energize them enough, the first two people done with their puzzle receive a free soda.
Different activities, including sudoku and crossword puzzles, are offered each day and increase in difficulty as the week progresses. The recreation program also offers ceramics, pottery and clay-molding classes. A kiln fires finished moldings, and after six to eight hours, the moldings come out looking like hardened glass. The final products are sold at the center for a small profit that goes toward the program.
Paquin’s recreation service receives benefits from partners all across Columbia, and because of its small yearly budget of $92,000, partners are vital to its survival. The city of Columbia provides around $72,000 annually for the program, but it changes every year.
Soon Bowman locks herself away in her office. She makes calls, replies to emails and does the business side of her work. Papers are strewn about her desk; they cover up knickknacks and other objects of affection. The busywork must be completed so she can attend to the truly rewarding portion of her job.
Once her paperwork is finished, she leaves her office, begins to interact with visitors and graces them with her kindness and an infectious smile. “There are so many people who come in throughout the day, and they’re like family to me, so it’s nice to keep up with them.”
Bowman will never forget the little boy who didn’t want to ride a horse. “He was my inspiration for what I do,” Bowman says. “Seeing that child change made me feel like I really could make a difference and change someone’s life.”
Last year she received a card from two Paquin Tower residents who thanked her for being a hero to them. She was so speechless she cried.