Pupils and Puppies and Profiles, Oh My!
by Kathy Nimmer
Did you enjoy the weekly puppy raiser profiles composed by high school writers? Now that the project has concluded, hear from the English teacher and Guiding Eyes grad who was behind it all. You will be amazed by how this project came together and how it touched so many lives.
About Me and My Guide Dog Journey
I am a high school English teacher, author, and motivational speaker from Indiana. I also make jewelry that raises donations for Guiding Eyes. Currently, I am working with my fourth guide dog, second from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
Elias was my first Guiding Eyes dog, coming into my life in December 2007. He was a loyal companion, winding up his career when my time as 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year was just beginning. Elias’s last working trip was to Washington DC where he met President Obama with me, participated in the Whitehouse Rose Garden ceremony for all the State Teachers of the Year, and drank from Bo Obama’s water bowl afterward!
When Elias retired, I was matched with Nacho in July 2015. His blend of stability and serenity was what Guiding Eyes knew I would need for the rest of my Indiana year of service and beyond. That first year alone, Nacho joined me in over 350 speaking engagements and special events, including one where Dolly Parton presented me with an award. She also gave Nacho a hand-crafted rhinestone collar, even though she said he was “getting fresh” by sniffing the bottom of her spangled skirt! Nacho and I are now in our sixth year as a team.
The Puppy Raiser Profile Project
This writing project began during the 2019 Labor Day weekend as I sought a unique angle for a cause/effect paper, one where my students would have no prior knowledge, would strengthen their questioning skills, and would find purpose in their writing beyond simply fulfilling guidelines. While on a Facebook group that included Guiding Eyes puppy raisers, I recalled the joyful time Nacho and I had with his puppy raiser, Tara Schatz, during a visit to Vermont. It dawned on me how little my students knew about puppy raising. I posted an inquiry to the Facebook group to see if puppy raisers would be interested in being interviewed and written about by my students. That post received over fifty responses in twenty-four hours! Conversations with Kerry Lemerise (Puppy Program Manager) and Zoe Bennett (Digital and Social Media Specialist) brought more direction, and the project was born. I went on to pair each student with a raiser who seemed suited by personality, communication skills, and interests.
We had thirty-eight partnerships between the fall 2019 and spring 2020 semesters. The students were all in my senior composition classes. They included star athletes in football, basketball, soccer, golf, track, and gymnastics. We had a valedictorian, a multi-instrument musician, a student who was newly adopted, one who had lived in Germany previously, one whose father died during senior year, twin sisters, an individual who had failed an English class once and was on fire to succeed, three young ladies enrolled in our new career center for nursing, and a young man who rides a unicycle for fun!
Nothing worth doing is easy, and this project was no exception. The biggest challenges during the first semester were determining how to structure the process, restarting communication when it waned, and allowing the students to stumble and self-correct. Puppy raisers were patient with me as I struggled to figure out those details! That was all settled for the second semester, but much more dramatic complications were ahead. One week before we were to start, two students from our school were killed in a horrible car accident. The pandemic then led to a temporary school closure a week after the interviews of raisers had begun. Eventually, we entered remote learning where the project commenced amid the devastation of my students as they saw their senior year collapse around them.
Even with these challenges, every single student turned in the assignment as a written profile or, in one case, as a podcast. Each piece was the culmination of weeks of email interviews, research, drafting, editing, and revision. Ultimately, twenty-three pairs chose to jointly perfect the profiles to be published on the Guiding Eyes website from February through early August of 2020.
Thoughts from Participants
Puppy raisers entered the project for a variety of reasons and had many takeaways. Susan Chamberlin says, “As a former teacher, I thought the project, especially for a senior class, could be fun and rewarding for everyone.” A priority for many participating raisers was spreading awareness. “I wanted to share all that goes into shaping these wonderful dogs and how many people take part in their journey,” explains Courtney Miller. The benefits of being in this project were often quite personal, including for Peggy Rouse. “Until Eli started asking me questions, I’d never connected all the dots that led me to become a puppy raiser,” she says. Kari Parrish had similar thoughts. She states, “I found myself excited to see what my senior would ask, then figure out about me and my reasons for being a puppy raiser. This project helped me dig deep and identify why I volunteer with organizations like Guiding Eyes for the Blind.” Dawn Harvey’s takeaways were twofold. “Meeting and learning about the senior I was paired with was a highlight as well as fostering an interest in the puppy raising process,” she states. “I hope he considers raising one day.” Ruth Ladd also had a meaningful experience. Ruth says, “In spite of the COVID-19 challenges, I was impressed by her thoughtful questions. Sure wish I could have met her in person!”
The benefits for my students were many. “The biggest thing I learned from this experience was the process of how a dog becomes trained,” says Philip Duvall. “It requires a lot of commitment.” Israel Tellez was struck by the passion of raisers. He notes, “I learned that they raise puppies as if they were theirs to keep, not seeing the job as a chore.” The interviewing process itself was fascinating to Nikki Hibler. She explains, “It was more of an investigation. However, I found myself enjoying how much digging I had to do.” Mark Kelley feels more prepared for college and beyond following this project. “There has never been an assignment like the puppy raiser essay. I have had to collaborate with others for projects, but collaboration for an essay at the high school level is unheard of,” he says. Publication was an amazing bonus for many of my students. “I’ve always enjoyed writing, so having one of my pieces up for anyone to read is super cool to me,” explains Maia Bell. “My paper was published the week after school was canceled for the school year,” Kiah Bentley notes, and because of that timing, she adds, “I felt accomplished and empowered.” Eli Lechien reflected on the way this publication capped his writing journey from kindergarten through senior year. He says, “In the beginning, I’d be lucky if Mom put my scribbles on the refrigerator. And here, twelve years later, I’m getting an essay published through an extremely special organization.”
My Final Thoughts
I have not done anything in my professional life as difficult as this project, nor have I done anything as important. I adore my students. I would move mountains for them. I also adore Nacho. He and my past guide dogs inhabit a permanent place in my heart. Seeing my students fall in love with puppy raising is the melding of two gigantic passions in my life. Maybe some of my students will become raisers in the future, and maybe some people who have read their pieces are becoming raisers even now. As our beloved Tara Schatz says, “Puppy raising isn’t for everyone, but it may just be for you, and you’ll never know unless you give it a try.” I also never knew if a project of this magnitude would work, but we gave it a try, and I’m grateful we did. After all, nothing worth doing is easy, but my students are worth it, puppy raisers are worth it, and our extraordinary guide dogs are worth it. As another puppy raiser, Aimee Muller, says, “Watching your lil’ fuzzball grow into a mature service pup effortlessly guiding their person through a crowd? Priceless!” Indeed, the perfect word to wrap up this project is “priceless.”