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December 2006 Graduating Class

Meet the members of our recent training class who graduated on December 9. Their uplifting stories reflect determination to lead independent lives with greater freedom to fulfill their personal goals. Please consider providing your support to future guide dog teams like them.

And many thanks to our instructors:

Many thanks to volunteer Marge Widman for contributing the interviews.

George Ashiotis and Blake

George Ashiotis will return to New York City with his third dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a black male Labrador named Blake. George, born 59 years ago in London, came to the United States when just a youngster. What little sight he had at birth as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, began to diminish slowly by the time he had reached age five. George graduated from Hunter College, earning a B.A. in English and Language Arts. He is currently the Co-Artistic Director for Theater by the Blind in New York City. The troupe performances have included works from Shakespeare as well as Agatha Christie originals, and an assortment of other works. Some of George’s favorite pastimes are reading (mostly classics), watching movies, and listening to music from classical to bluegrass. He also does a bit of cooking on the side. George knows that Blake, a great working dog, will also be a wonderful companion. Advised years ago by friends to come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind, George would most certainly extend that very same advice to others now. “This is a great place. They put out good dogs, and the staff is the ultimate best!”

Shelly Bamrick and Ginny

Shelly Bamrick has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind from Saranac Lake in upstate New York for Ginny, her new companion and guide. Her former dog is now retired with her puppy raisers. Born blind as a result of microphthalmia (underdevelopment of eyes), Shelly, now 41, obtained her first of five successive dogs from Guiding Eyes for the Blind at the age of 16.  She came to the school as a result of the advice from a former Guiding Eyes for the Blind staff member, who had been her vision teacher in elementary school. Shelly went on to further her education at Buffalo State College, and then the University of Buffalo where she received a B.S. in Psychology. She is now working as an Independent Living Specialist in Saranac Lake. Shelly has lots of interests to keep her happily occupied. She enjoys reading, working, and plays a bit of flute, piano, guitar, clarinet and harmonica. As a former music therapist, she is a strong believer in music and its power to calm and soothe. She sees a lot of herself in her new dog and knows that Ginny’s serious attention to work and happy spirit will bond them together as a team. When speaking of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, she says, “It’s like a second family! They’ve watched me grow up since I was a kid! The program here is great, the instructors are so supportive, and the class is super!”

Kennan Cole and Woodrow

Kennan Cole has come from Colorado Springs to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for his first guide dog, Woodrow. Kennan, now 38, was born blind as a result of optic atrophy. He was introduced to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for the first time at a Rocky Mountain Guide Dog Users Conference, where he listened attentively to a Guiding Eyes for the Blind representative. Kennan studies at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and plans to obtain a teaching degree. Kennan enjoys mountain climbing, hiking, skiing, short wave radio and reading, history, politics and good fiction. A working member of organizations for the blind in Colorado, he is also an environmental activist promoting the theme and goal to “Keep Colorado Beautiful.” “Woodrow,” explained Kennan, “is an important part and parcel of the greatest choice I’ve ever made. We have become friends. He loves to curl up with me and of course, he is a great working and walking dog! I am really anxious to get home now and watch Woodrow revolutionize my lifestyle! I think Guiding Eyes for the Blind – the environment, the instructors – is the greatest. I’m very happy to be here!”

Joyce Main and Guiness

Joyce Main, from Toronto, Canada, has come back to Guiding Eyes for the Blind to receive her fourth dog, Guiness. Joyce was born 68 years ago with toxoplasmosis, a gradual loss of vision as a result of retinal deterioration. By the time she was 16, what little sight she had left had all but disappeared. Joyce did a lot of research before she made her decision to come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind. She knew some staff and was attracted by the school’s informal environment and teaching techniques. She first received an Associate Degree in Business Administration and Management and Accounting in Ontario’s Community College, followed by four University degrees. She put her acquired knowledge into practice when she taught classes, engaged in social work and political science, worked in public administration, was an executive secretary, and consultant to the Federal Government of Canada. Her life is not all filled with business: she loves all kinds of music including classical, old jazz, big bands, rock ‘n roll, you name it. Joyce says she appreciates the laid back, but excellent working traits of Guiness, who always wants to please. He will, however, have to get used to some cats around the house when he returns with her to Toronto. Joyce has many accolades when describing her collective experiences at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “Here I have found a place where I can be myself, that is emotionally satisfying, never threatening and I feel at home. The trainers truly care here and they capably assure your success.”

Daniel Martin and Honey

Daniel Martin calls Staunton, Virginia home and has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for his second dog from the School, a black Golden Retriever/Lab mix (GLAB) by the name of Honey. In 1986, an automobile accident claimed Daniel’s sight. Now 20 years later, at the age of 36, Daniel will celebrate his ninth year (and counting) of wedded bliss on Valentine’s Day. He and his wife have a five-year old daughter and a 2 1/2 year-old son who came from Guatemala to join their family. Daniel chose Guiding Eyes for the Blind as the result of observing a friend who had a dog from the School. Having received his Master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Pittsburgh, Daniel now serves as a rehab teacher for the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired. In his spare time, he likes to work on his computer, listen to books on tape and is presently writing a children’s fictional animal story. Honey is playful, loves attention, likes to anoint him with sloppy kisses, but is an excellent working dog, as well. Daniel is anxious to get home and introduce her to the family. Daniel emphatically states that “Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a quality organization. They implement new skills and methods to ensure the success of the all-important partnership of dog and man.”

Macey Miller and Ralph

Macey Miller hails from Newton, Massachusetts and has come at the age of 75 for his second dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. He promises that Ralph, his black male Labrador will lead an exciting and interesting life. Macey experienced a spontaneous sight loss in 1978 resulting principally from a detached retina, macular degeneration and resulting multiple laser operations from which he also suffers constant dizziness. Formerly in the insurance business, Macey sought advice, vocational and otherwise, from the Carroll Center for the Blind and was pleased to learn that age was not a factor in obtaining a dog. Enter Guiding Eyes for the Blind and Macey’s present occupation. He calls it “interactive drumming.” Macey also does interactive performances at the psychiatric section of hospitals and nursing homes for Alzheimer patients across the state of Massachusetts. “I trust Ralph is ready for that, but he certainly will enjoy the resultant petting at the end of the program.” Ralph is a live wire, and an affectionate, responsive canine. Macey states: “Ralph will be my eyes, my stability and part of my act!” Then he added, “Since coming to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for the first time, nothing has changed. Everyone and everything is accessible. Thank you, Guiding Eyes!”

Charles Small and Vander

Chuck Small lives and works in the big state of Texas. He celebrated his 39th birthday at Guiding Eyes for the Blind with his third dog from the School, Vander, a male yellow Lab. Chuck has been blind since the age of two as the result of retinoblastoma. He came to Guiding Eyes for the Blind at the age of 21 on the advice received from the Illinois Institute for the Visually Handicapped. Chuck is happily employed as a reservationist for Hilton Hotels and their subsidiaries around the world. Their program for the visually impaired requires eight weeks of intensive training. Chuck, as a fairly new Texan, enjoys target practice, but also likes to read and listen to music. Vander is a “loving boy,” likes to play, can be a bit stubborn at times, but works superbly well. Chuck expects that Vander, as well as being a great companion, will be a valuable aid on his 45-minute paratransit ride to work and wherever else Chuck needs to go. Chuck is happy to express how he feels about coming to Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “I love it here, have come three times in 18 years and it has always been like a large family to me. Everyone wants to make you feel welcome and successful! Guiding Eyes for the Blind does a great job in conducting serious business in a congenial family setting and atmosphere.”

Val Swanson and Paul

Another New York City resident, Val Swanson has been coming to Guiding Eyes for the Blind since he was 18 and is a well-seasoned and satisfied customer of 37 years. Val’s initial entry to Guiding Eyes for the Blind came as a result of advice from a friend and his mother. Paul, Val’s fifth dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a black male Labrador and is ready, willing and able to accompany Val in his busy city life. Val has been blind since birth as the result of retinopathy of prematurity. He has managed a successful and busy news stand in a well-trafficked NYC location since 1979, and now just drops in for a few hours a day to check on business. Val likes to work out, bowls in two leagues and has done some skiing. Val knows that Paul and he are well suited to each other. Paul loves to play, is laid back when he needs to be, but is an excellent worker and walks at a fast pace. Val loves to walk in the city, ride the subways, go to the movies and likes to browse through department stores. He knows that Paul will be a great help on those treks. Val’s evaluation of Guiding Eyes for the Blind is that it is “a superbly run organization. The changes over the years have been for the better and very helpful. The instructors are good-natured and very patient. I love it here.”

Francioso Vega and Perkins

New Britain, Connecticut is the home of Tony Vega, who has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for his first dog, Perkins. Tony, now 23, became legally blind six years ago as a result of hydrocephalus that caused pressure to build on his optic nerve. Losing his sight precluded his ability to determine the difference between sidewalk (with no curbing) and street and that was one important factor that convinced him to seek help. At the advice of a friend of his mother, Tony turned to Guiding Eyes for the Blind. At present, he is continuing his high school education by correspondence from the Hadley School for the Blind. He plans to continue to take courses in Business Administration. An artist at heart, Tony likes to create and draw landscapes and architectural renderings. He knows that Perkins and he will be real buddies, for together they enjoy their sleep, love to play and are good workers out on the street. Tony values his independence and he hates having to depend on anyone else, whether at home or moving out and about. A young man of few, but rapidly spoken, words smiled as he expressed these sentiments: “Guiding Eyes for the Blind is like a hotel. The staff is like a family!”

Yamil Zuleta and Chip

Yamil Zuleta has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind from Woodhaven (Queens), New York for his first dog, Chip. Yamil has been blind since birth but now, at the age of 22, has set some ambitious goals for his life. Yamil was drawn to Guiding Eyes for the Blind because he “dog sat” for a friend’s guide dog that she had obtained from the school. That experience sold him, not only on his need for a canine, but on where he could obtain such a wonder dog and training himself. Yamil graduated high school from the New York Institute for the Blind and is currently enrolled in his third year at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, majoring in liberal arts. He likes to write poetry and loves “soul” music. His hopes and ambition for the future are anchored by his strong Islamic faith. He aspires to travel all the continents of the world and speak about human rights for whoever needs “a voice.” In speaking of Chip, he says, “he is like walking with cruise control. He is playful, laid back at times, and affectionate, always wanting to please.” He says that Chip is the dog for him! Speaking of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Yamil had high praise: “This is a great organization and program where you are treated with respect and taught to be independent.”