To the casual observer the Pickens appear to be a conventional family. There are children’s toys are scattered around the semi-tidy house, a warm friendly kitchen, and lots of family photographs hanging in prominent positions in different rooms. Closer acquaintance provides greater insight and the words ‘unusual’, ‘different’, ‘quirky’, and ‘exceptional’ come to mind. Karen and Andy had a son Laurie who is 25 years old, and went on to adopt three young children with Down syndrome – Rebecca, Mario and Dewni.
This is a win-win family in the widest possible sense. Obviously the children win because they have each other in a close family unit. They also have loving, knowledgeable and energetic parents. The parents gain because they enjoy parenting children who are loving, challenging, and full of life. But it’s so much more than that. Everyone who comes into contact with the family are potential winners too. The instructors and helpers at the Otley RDA benefitted from the children’s eagerness, fun-loving nature, and occasionally stubbornly independent personalities. Karen and Andy are also involved in community action projects aimed at improving the life chances of people with disabilities. I gained as a photographer too since I only had to point my camera in the children’s direction and I’d acquire fascinating and insightful photos – Rebecca ‘organising’ the famous actor Anthony Head at the RDAs National Championship awards ceremony, is a favourite image of mine.
The Riding for the Disabled Association has been transforming lives for more than 40 years. Currently they support 28,000 riders in the UK with the help of 18,000 instructors and volunteers. At the centre of everything is the special bond between rider and horse that builds confidence, helps develop communication, strengthens bodies, and is fun. Rebecca likes to be in control and enjoys manoeuvring horses over, around, and under obstacles. She has represented the North of England at two National Championships gaining a silver medal for dressage, a second place in the National Championship Art Competition, and has won awards for her horse knowledge. It was Rebecca who coined the phrase ‘It’s like riding rainbow’ to describe her feelings when riding.
Initially Dewni, who loves animals, was timorous around horses and would keep her distance. Later, with the help of RDA volunteers and the encouragement of Karen and Andy, she learnt to overcome her fear and now looks forward to working with horses and gets excited at the thought of a rapid trot on her favourite pony.
The RDA works from the principle ‘It’s what you can do that counts’, and strives, no matter what level of ability, to help individuals to achieve their goals and to have lots of fun in the process. The transformation in the Picken children’s lives is testament to their work. The ‘Different Lives’ project is about the lives of ordinary people with disabilities leading unique, interesting, and important lives. The Pickens family are the embodiment of the beliefs that underpin ‘Different Lives’.