The Night Before Departure

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Remember going to camp as a kid? Your cabin mates or family group members were all strangers, but after a week of being with one another 24-7, the bonds grow real tight, real fast. That’s kinda how it is in Seeing Eye dog training, too.

I’ve talked a good bit about the dogs and the training process, but let me give a little insight into the human side of this. My class started out with around 20 students. That means 20 individuals who are blind from all across North America. Vancouver, BC to Boston, Florida to L.A. Lots of in betweens. Put any 20 people together in a dorm for a few weeks and you’ll start to get an idea of what this is like. Of course, these 20 people are also separated from their families, living with a profound disability, some have additional health concerns, all learning to navigate a new environment with a brand new dog. In my class, we’ve had one student who, a few days into training, decide it wasn’t for him. In other classes, we’ve seen matches between dog and owner that weren’t going to work. We’ve seen people who cannot deal with the homesickness and decide to leave. At times, it can be a fragile environment.

During this class, nearly half of the original 20 are first timers. The conditions are especially grueling for those who have only known cane travel and sighted guide. Tomorrow, retrains head home. After a few weeks of living together, a lot of laughs, probably some silent tears, times of anger and frustration, times of thinking, “I’ll never get this right…”, we are now headed back to our homes. It reminds me of the last night of camp and all the tears around the campfire. Relationships have been created that will certainly stand the test of time. I’m still in contact with several of the folks who I first trained with in 1995. And, I’m sure there will be a few folks from this class I’ll be glad to call friends down the road.

Tonight, many of us will gather in the common lounge, have a toast to this class and training time, finish packing our bags and, first thing in the morning, head for the airport. As for me, I’ll be here an extra day with the first timers since I have an engagement at Newark Beth Israel Hospital on Friday. The first timers will get loads of individualized attention over the next week and, by the time they, too, board flights, I hope they’ll feel as confident as I do now.

Confidence. That’s one of the things the Seeing Eye gives. I spent six months undergoing rigorous orientation and mobility with the white cane while in rehab school. I was super proficient with a cane in 1995 and I’m still okay today. A little rusty, but I can get around independently. But, with a dog? Yeah, no fear. I can do New York City solo with no problem. I can fly cross country and be just fine. I can leave a hotel and get to a restaurant or anywhere I need to go. This is the confidence I have because of my Seeing Eye dogs. It is a gift that I don’t take lightly. It is thanks to the generous donors, puppy raisers, kennel staff, vets, trainers, grounds crews, apprentices, kitchen and housekeeping staff and everyone else involved with the Seeing Eye that makes this possible.

A few weeks ago I was reading a biography of Mark Twain. I cringed when the author spoke of a “blind asylum” near where Twain was living. Asylums. That is where blind folks went just 100 years ago. It is thanks to Morris Frank and the generous philanthropic efforts of the founders of the Seeing Eye that mean, today, blind asylums aren’t even a thing. It’s because of pioneers like those who went before me that mean I can live a normal life; albeit with a dog by my side. It’s a debt of gratitude all people who are blind or visually impaired should remember…and as we all say our farewells and thank yous, I’ll raise a toast to those original founders of the Seeing Eye that, today, mean I Have a great, great life.

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