The Big Lottery Fund recently gave away £100,000 of funding to groups that have changed people’s lives or transformed communities.
The cash give-away of 10 grants of £10,000 celebrates all the great things that people have done with Big Lottery Fund support in the past decade.
They asked the public to nominate groups that had made a big impact on them and Michelle and Adam Barker from Cullybackey nominated Assistance Dogs NI, one of the 10 lucky winners. The group train assistance dogs to support people with disabilities and children with autism across Northern Ireland. The Barkers told how assistance dog Honey had transformed their daughter Rebecca’s life.
The Barkers and Honey are well known in the Coleraine area as they are always up and down to their caravan in Portstewart.
“We are a family of four now. Honey is just one of us,” says Michelle.
But the relative calm of the busy Barker household today is a far cry from the anxiety in the months following seven-year-old Rebecca’s diagnosis with Asperger’s, a complex form of autism.
“We didn’t know anything was ‘wrong’ until she went to school – there always seemed to be a reasonable explanation for any of the things we might have wondered at about,” recalls Michelle, a full-time mum.
“But it became evident Rebecca was desperately different from the rest of the kids. That was in September 2011, and by December she was diagnosed.”
However, although they had a diagnosis the family had little else as they began their journey into unchartered territory.
“Rebecca is constantly trying to make sense of a world where nothing seems to make sense and so she becomes extremely anxious. She’ll have meltdowns and become so stressed she’s in danger of hurting herself,” explains Michelle.
“For instance, she has sensory issues – a label on the back her jumper can feel like a piece of barbed wire, or someone accidentally bumping into her can really hurt.
“It was at the end of one particularly bad day that I just thought, there must be something more.”
As Michelle frantically trawled the net that night for some sort of help she found Assistance Dogs NI’s website.
“These were dogs specially trained to help people with all sorts of needs. We filled out the form to apply for a dog and waited,” says Michelle.
“Rebecca calls Honey her sister and her hero - they are inseparable,” says Michelle.
“We can’t believe the difference in our wee girl. It’s like we’re only getting to see the real Rebecca now.
“If she has a meltdown Honey licks and comforts her so Rebecca calms down right away.
“I couldn’t begin to tell you how Honey has changed our lives. We were a family which couldn’t go out – now we’re never in. Honey understands Rebecca and gives her confidence.”
Assistance Dogs NI will use the money to train two assistance dogs and place them with families who need support. For Geraldine McGaughey, chairperson with Assistance Dogs NI, Rebecca and Honey’s story sums up what their work is about.
“We are thrilled to have won this money from the Big Lottery Fund. Quite simply, it will transform lives and will go towards training more dogs to help children and adults like Rebecca.
“It’s priceless to see the look on a mother or father’s face when they see their child’s life changing for the better.”