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March 2007 Graduating Class

Meet the members of our recent training class who graduated on March 24

And many thanks to our instructors:

Many thanks to volunteer Marge Widman for contributing the interviews.

Ken Armstrong and Gisa

Durham, North Carolina is home to Ken Armstrong, who has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for his third guide dog. Gisa, an all-black female shepherd is his first dog from Guiding Eyes. Ken lost his sight from an allergic reaction to penicillin in 1982. He applied to Guiding Eyes because of the strong recommendations of a friend, now deceased. Ken experienced the value of that recommendation when he took care of his Guiding Eyes dog shortly before and after his friend’s demise. Now age 49, Ken has been married for 23 years and has eight children. A former restaurateur, specializing in good ol’ southern cookin’, Ken sold the business three years ago and now works in the mattress production department of Lions Club Industries. Ken loves indoor roller skating and riding his bike. He takes advantage of his daughters’ ability to braid hair, and thus enjoys regular free upkeep on his well-groomed coif. Ken says that Gisa matches his personality to a tee. She is laid back, friendly, a wonderful worker and adores her new master. After two years without a guide dog, Ken feels that he is now a better and more appreciative guide dog user. “I really love it here. The trainers are excellent, easy to get along with and give each student personal explanations and directions when needed. A great experience, from A to Z.”

William Baessler and Homer

William (Bill) Baessler has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind from St. Louis, Missouri for Homer, his sixth guide dog, third from Guiding Eyes. Bill was attracted to Guiding Eyes by what he had observed of the School’s graduates. He liked the way the dogs had been trained and how well they worked. Following further research on the Internet and a quick response from the School, he applied and was enrolled. Bill was a preemie, weighing in at 2 lb and 11 oz. As a result, he developed retinopathy of prematurity. He did have partial vision in his right eye until the age of 15. Bill earned two degrees in college, an A.A. in Merchandising and a B.A. in Economics, well qualifying him for his job with the I.R.S. as a customer service representative. He has been employed at this “taxing position” for 23 years. However, Bill is not “all business.” He maintains a large jazz/rock ‘n roll collection, is a successful bowler, and likes to run, workout and read. He has also compiled a thorough and comprehensive study of the history of the Indianapolis 500. Homer can be playful and “goofy,” is obedient and an excellent leader. Bill especially looks forward to their playtime together and sharing a close companionship. Bill is a big fan of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in every respect and applauds the changes that have taken place in some training techniques over the years. “Everyone here does everything in their power to ensure your success.” He also loves meeting the puppy raisers. “It’s like being part of a big, happy family.”

Gary Bergman and Vasco

Gary Bergman, a resident of New York City, has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for his first dog, Vasco. Gary’s low/partial vision was diagnosed as the result of retinitis pigmentosa when he was three years of age. Gary was recently referred to Guiding Eyes by his colleague, George Ashiotis, who graduated from Guiding Eyes in November, 2006. They are both members of a theater company in Manhattan, “Theater by the Blind.” Gary describes himself as wearing “a coat of many colors.” He is a practicing licensed massage therapist, cook, musician, playwright and an artist in sound design, just to name a few. Gary has the only blonde Lab in the class, and so Vasco’s pseudo name has become “James Blonde.” “Vasco,” he says, “is just warming up, a blue collar dog that loves to play and wrestle. Oh yes, he’s a great leader as well!” Gary stated that he feels that the impact of Vasco in his life will be huge. “Once it sank in that this would really work for me, I became truly overwhelmed. All facets of my life will change! My experience here has been amazing. It has been challenging, but joyful. It is wonderful to see competence, kindness and care in one place. ‘Stunning’ is what I call it!”

Jerry Eberhart and Lucas

Jerry Eberhart is from Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, and at the age of 79, is the eldest member of the class. Lucas is his second dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Jerry received his B.S. from Penn State University in Forestry and worked as a forester in Minnesota’s Indian Reservation, later moving to Pennsylvania to employ his skills there. Jerry’s journey into sight loss occurred when he was in his 30’s as the result of retinitis pigmentosa. The jolting realization of his need for a dog occurred one day when he was walking in the snow and couldn’t distinguish the boundaries of the path on which he was walking from a creek in which he unhappily landed. That was it. His ophthalmologist recommended that he consider getting a guide dog. The local Lions Club directed him to Guiding Eyes. With the support and aid from his wife of 57 years, he applied and was accepted at the school. Jerry retired at the age of 62 and now enjoys hiking and listening to books on tape. He also enjoys bringing his Guiding Eyes dog to surrounding community schools to talk about blindness and how his guide dog is literally his best helper and friend. In fact, when his former companion/guide passed away, the Pastor of his church asked if they could hold a memorial service for the canine (which they did!). Lucas is personable, laid back, inquisitive and a wonderful leader. Jerry is always happy to express his deep appreciation for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. “It’s unbelievable! The staff is exceptionally kind and generous and the dogs are so well trained. It’s all more than anyone could ever ask for!”

Susan Frey and Neil

Susan Frey has come from Abbottstown, Pennsylvania to meet her new partner, Neil, a handsome male black Labrador. Neil is Susan’s second dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Susan was declared legally blind in 1995 as the result of a very rare hereditary disease. She came to Guiding Eyes at the advice of her mobility instructor. Now 60, Susan is married and a mother of three. Having earned a Masters degree in Social Work from Seton Hall, Susan has been employed as a psychologist/counselor for the past 3 1/2 years. Susan also has an avid interest in Buddhism and its philosophy. She describes Neil’s personality as being loving, affectionate, accepting, low key and an excellent worker. Susan has a passion for digging in her perennial garden, touring antique shops, attending auctions and going to the theatre and dinner. Susan fully anticipates that Neil will be an asset for her daily commute to work on public transport as well as being a comforting and quiet presence in her practice. She remembers well the day she fell on ice and broke her wrist. Her former dog, Larry (now retired at home), sensed the emergency and stood by and hovered over her protectively until help came. As for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Susan describes it as “top notch, a caring school that does everything right.”

Brianna Fuellbrandt and Snickers

Winnepeg, Canada is home to Brianna Fuellbrandt who has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for Snickers, her first dog from the School. Brianna lost her sight as the result of a rare strain of retinitis pigmentosa when she was twelve years old. Brianna came to Guiding Eyes because of the effusive recommendations made by many of her clients, friends and co-workers at the CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind). She has been employed there as an independent living skills specialist for the last three years. Brianna is also an artist who loves fashioning pottery and knitting. She takes great pride in the resultant “blossoms” of her designs. She also loves to read. Snickers, clearly not a candy bar, enjoys work and play equally. Brianna loves to hear the sound of Snicker’s madly thumping tail which defines her total joie de vivre. Brianna is a fast talker and knows that Snickers will help her to speed up her walk to match her talk. She looks forward to a deeper feeling of independence and ease of mobility. “Guiding Eyes for the Blind is a great school. Here they take time to answer your questions and accommodate your needs. What a wonderful experience! I know I will keep in touch with many of the folks I have met here.”

Maria Gutierrez and Able

Maria Gutierrez, the youngest member of March’s class, has come from El Paso, Texas for Able her very first guide dog. Maria was born blind as a result of retinopathy of prematurity. She chose Guiding Eyes as a result of the advice of friends who are graduates of the school. Her computer research of schools convinced her further. Maria matriculated through public school but did attend summer camp programs sponsored by the Texas School for the Blind. She will soon enter a training program at Lions World Services in Arkansas to be an assistive technology instructor. Maria is a braillist, enjoys playing games on the computer, listening to music, hanging out with friends, going out to eat and making the most of life in general. She noted that Able is an excellent and obedient leader, that knows when to work and when to play. She feels that a bonding between them has already taken place. She is confident that he will enable her to go places where she has never been and feel safe while enjoying more independence. At the same time, Able will fulfill her need for full-time companionship. Speaking of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Maria expressed complete satisfaction. “This is a nice place, with great people who explain things until they know they are fully understood. I will definitely come back!”

Clarence Hayes and Pete

Clarence Hayes is a native of New York City who has been transplanted to Sunrise, Florida where he now happily resides. He has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind to receive his second dog, Pete. In 1988-89 he became partially sighted as a result of glaucoma. When he was struck by an automobile in 1997, it was a wake-up call for him to get a guide dog. Clarence had earned a B.A. in Criminal Justice, preparing to become a criminal lawyer. But, he says, he has really found his niche in life in Florida where he has become an effective rehab teacher at the local Lighthouse for the Blind. Clarence spoke of one of his blind clients who had come to the United States seeking help. He saw what Clarence’s dog had done for him and recently graduated from Guiding Eyes himself. Clarence and Kate, his wife, who has a guide dog of her own, have purchased their first home. He says his favorite pastime now is playing with their four-year-old daughter. Pete is working out well. He is playful, loves attention and is a great worker. Pete’s predecessor, Soda, has been retired with “the old folks at home,” his wife’s mom and dad. “My first dog changed my life completely. Now I’m willing to explore with Pete at my side. “I feel like I can go to the moon!” Speaking of his recent experience at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, he says, “It’s a perfectly wonderful school – totally professional – the dogs are superb!”

John Howe and Lester

Painted Post, New York is home to John Howe, who at the age of 74, has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for Lester, his very first guide dog. John lost his sight three years ago as a result of macular degeneration. He has six children from his first marriage. He is now remarried to a nurse. It was she who suggested he obtain a guide dog. She did the research, submitted the information to him, and he is happy that he made the decision to come to Guiding Eyes. During his service in the US Army, John, who had developed a love for engines, drove various types of vehicles during the Korean conflict. It was only natural for him that he would continue in that occupation. John drove trucks coast to coast for the next 38 years. It was a tough life. Some of John’s favorite retirement pastimes are walking, listening to music and visiting friends. He plans to visit nursing homes with Lester when he returns home. He feels that Lester shows the propensity to comfort, love, obey and play. He could hardly believe the power of control and independence and lack of fear that he felt immediately with Lester at his side. “It is unbelievable. I feel so proud to be walking with my dog! The students, counselors, trainers – everyone here is like a brother or sister in whom you have complete confidence and trust. Guiding Eyes for the Blind has surely given me a new lease on life!”

Joanna Miller and Milo

Joanna Miller has come all the way from Santa Rosa, California for Milo, her first guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Retinitis pigmentosa claimed most of Joanna’s sight leaving her with tunnel vision until, at the age of 40, she was declared legally blind. Joanna, now 57, is married with three children. Joanna was directed to Guiding Eyes by the Lighthouse for the Blind in Chicago and The Helen Keller School in Long Island, where she heard a Guiding Eyes representative talk about the school. Joanna now feels she is a woman with a mission. She is attending her second year of junior college, not yet sure what she wants to be “when she grows up.” Joanna describes herself as an “intuitive artist.” She draws objects she sees in shadow: a face, image, person, that springs into actual form in her mind and eventually becomes an artistic rendering. She has won prizes for some of her work done in velvet. Milo is friendly and outgoing, but he also demonstrates a strong work ethic and a streak of stubbornness. She feels they have bonded already. Joanna fully expects that Milo will take her to heights that she has never achieved before and will truly be her buddy as well as her eyes. “My experience here at Guiding Eyes for the Blind has been absolutely great. I could never have imagined the true dimensions of its purpose and results.”

Cecelia Penn and Neva

Cecelia Penn lives in Sulphur, Louisiana with her husband of four years. She has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for her second dog, Neva. Cecelia, now in her mid forties, is sightless due to head trauma when she was young. She also has neuropathy in her feet and hands. She is proud of her 50% Native American heritage, which she knows has implanted a strong spiritual sense within her. This has enabled her to become an upbeat, positive person who chooses to find the good in life, to live in the present and to look forward to the future. Cecelia likes to write poetry and prose. She has embarked on writing a book for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, describing their “purpose, program and product.” Cecelia also likes to read and to cook (and to wear very colorful clothing). She is proud to note that since she was last at Guiding Eyes, she has lost 135 pounds after weight loss surgery. This will help her to ensure a healthy future. Cecelia is particularly appreciative of the Guiding Eyes trainers’ personalization of her harness and leash equipment to accommodate her lack of feeling in her feet and hands. She describes Neva as a petite, loving, laid back, giving, devoted and obedient “stick of dynamite.” Cecelia knows that she will soon resume some public speaking, and walk with dignity and confidence. “Thank you, Guiding Eyes for the Blind!”

Robert Steele and Philip

Robert (Bob) Steele hails from Portland, Maine and has come to Guiding Eyes for the Blind for his fourth dog, Philip. Now 61, Bob was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 1985. He is a Vietnam vet who served in the Marine Corps from 1963-67. He followed his natural instincts and worked in a steel mill, was a carpenter and went to school to learn how to rebuild automobile transmissions. At present, Bob is a guy who just likes to hang out with his buddies and enjoy nature – a true “Mainiac.” He loves to walk on his home state’s many nature trails, camp and fish and just could not do that without a guide dog. His new guide, Philip, is laid back, but loves to play and chase balls. He does have a mind of his own except when working. Then he keeps his mind very focused on the task set before him. Bob expects that Philip will give him freedom to move about and enhance his social life, enabling him to meet new folks. Bob claims that he is a good cook, favoring steaks, potatoes, lobsters, clams and other seafood. Bob says he loves Guiding Eyes for the Blind. For him, it’s like a second home.