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Brothers Easton and Elliott (photo credit: Paulette Butler)

Guiding Eyes for the Blind: Offering Vision in More Ways Than One

By Helena Tavares Kennedy

Brothers Easton and Elliott (photo credit: Paulette Butler)

Many people take eyesight for granted and don’t realize what it’s like to live in a world made for people that can see when you have vision loss. From crossing the street safely to having a caring companion, Guiding Eyes for the Blind can help people with vision loss to live their lives safely with greater independence and the freedom to achieve their life goals.

Guide dogs are much needed for people with vision loss, but service animals aren’t born naturally knowing how to help someone navigate around obstacles, for example. That’s where Guiding Eyes for the Blind comes in and helps breed, train, support and connect exceptional dogs with individuals and families.

How Guiding Eyes Guides
Guiding Eyes has been around nationally since 1954 and has graduated more than 7,000 guide dog teams. They place an impressive 160 dogs each year with the help of more than 1,400 volunteers that help make it all happen. About 92 percent of the guide dogs used at Guiding Eyes are Labrador Retrievers, which are known for being excellent service animals because of their caring, gentle and intelligent nature.

After breeding, puppies receive Guiding Eyes veterinary services that help ensure they are cared for and healthy, all free of charge as part of the program. Most puppies go through a year or more of puppy raising time with volunteers, who help with basic socialization and training. Then the dogs spend four to
six months in professional training, so they can assist a person with vision loss with situations like going up or down stairs or navigating around obstacles, such as a pothole in the sidewalk or a large puddle.

However, training isn’t only offered for the dogs. The people, or students as they are called by Guiding Eyes, also have formal training, so they can learn how to care for and work with their new guide dogs. The Home Training Program takes the dogs to students’ homes who can’t travel to the New York headquarters for a three-week residential program. This allows the staff to help train students with dogs in their home areas. There is a Special Needs Program for students who have other physical or
development challenges as well as visual impairment, such as hearing loss, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, or other challenges.

There is also a program just for youth called “Sights on College,” a program for U.S. military and their families called “Guiding Veterans,” and a program for athletes with vision loss called “Running Guides.” What makes Guiding Eyes stand out even more than its customized curriculum based on the needs of each student is that the organization doesn’t just hand over the dogs and say farewell, but rather the programs provide extensive postgraduation support for all alumni.

Easton at school (photo credit: Paulette Butler)

Puppy Raising

It’s usually not that difficult to find someone to take care of puppies—the hard part is finding someone willing to raise them, train them, and know they will have to say goodbye to them sooner rather than later. Volunteers are trained, so they can socialize their pups and teach basic obedience and house manners, and they usually return their pups to the program at approximately 16-18 months old so that they can continue with the Guiding Eyes program.

“We have people from all backgrounds and living situations that help us in so many ways,” said Jodi Haveles, regional manager for the Prince William Region of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Paulette Butler, a long-time raiser for Guiding Eyes and a Prince William County school teacher, makes it a family affair with her high school son, Blake, who recently finished working with his first dog. Her husband, Kevin, is a Prince William County police officer and has driven the 10-crate van up to New York to drop off a pack of dogs and “cheer their beloved Easton onto success as he works his way one more step closer to what he was born to do: become a guide dog,” said Haveles.

Butler originally saw the Guiding Eyes booth at the Manassas Jubilee and couldn’t resist the puppies. She grabbed some information, and a few years later when her boys were older and she had more time to raise puppies, she called Haveles. “It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done,” said Butler. “The amount of support from Jodi as well as other raisers is incredible.”

The joy and love goes beyond raising dogs for Butler, as she hoped the Guiding Eyes experiences would show her sons what it’s like to give back to your community. Even after saying goodbye to their first pup through many tears, she asked her sons if they would do it again, and they both said yes without
hesitation. “It was then that I knew we had both given and received from this wonderful relationship,” said Butler. “My boys still get sad, still miss the pups when they leave, but they’ve said, ‘We want them to pass their tests and become guides. That’s what they were born to do. That’s what will make them
the happiest, and people need them.’ As a mom, my cup runneth over.”

Brigitte Bombardier, also a Prince William resident, has volunteered with Guiding Eyes since 2015 but wishes she hadn’t waited until retirement to volunteer. “The variety of opportunities available to help Guiding Eyes makes it easy to do something you enjoy and fit with your schedule,” she said. “I wish I had known about that before I retired. I could have done a lot of puppy sitting during that time and that would have been a blast!”

First-time raiser and retired Prince William County school support staff person Linda Saylor is watching her dog, Elliott (Easton’s brother), work his way into Guiding Eyes’ elite breeding program. “The top three percent of our dogs have a shot at becoming a part of our breeding colony,” said Haveles. “As you can see, it takes a village to raise these puppies that change peoples’ lives every single day.”

“As a child I always had an interest in raising a dog to help a visually impaired/blind person but never had the opportunity come my way until I was an adult,” said Saylor. After raising children, retiring from PWCS and losing a few dogs of her own through the years, she started raising pups for Guiding Eyes
in 2016 and has been doing it ever since. “What a wonderful and challenging adventure I set off for,” said Saylor. “I learned so much about training pups and also how to just slow my life down and take time to take it all in.”

How You Can Help
Guiding Eyes is always looking for volunteers to help with a range of tasks, but especially puppy raising and sitting. Haveles emphasizes that “although you donate your time, energy and heart to the program, you get back a thousandfold of what you give. Come join us! You are guaranteed puppy kisses and the
experience of seeing your heart grow large as you give back to those that need you.”

As a nonprofit organization, Guiding Eyes offers all services free of charge and depends on contributions and donations to fulfill its mission. Many Prince William area businesses support the organization by donating services, such as veterinary care, socialization visits, and training space.

Contributions are also welcome to help support the program, especially considering it costs about $50,000 to breed, raise, train, and match a dog with an owner as well as to support the pair throughout their life together. Donation details and more information can be found at guidingeyes.org. You can
learn more about volunteers from the Prince William region on Facebook at facebook.com/GEBpwr.

Helena Tavares Kennedy ([email protected]) is a longtime Prince William County resident and freelance writer and communications consultant at htkmarketingservices.com and
livinggreendaybyday.com.

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