This is graduation night for Georgine, a yellow Labrador and now a trained guide dog for the blind.
Photo: David Nelson
There is a spirit of uncertainty, fear, confusion, and doubt filling the hearts of many Americans today, turning a generous, hopeful and loving season into a time of greed and single mindedness. But amidst financial ruin and calamity there’s an organization you should know about. It is founded on the principle of helping others in need. And this haven of love and concern provides all its services at no cost. Yes. It is free, with no small-print disclaimers.
Guide Dogs For The Blind, headquartered in San Rafael, California, has a second campus in rural Boring, Oregon. Guide Dogs was established in 1942. According to Michele Davis, of the GDB’s Boring branch, “The face of blindness is changing. It began with GI’s from WWII but is now moving toward older adults since there are fewer children born blind in America. As people lose their sight, they require the help Guide Dogs for the Blind provides.”

The guide dog facility in Boring, Oregon, is amazing. People come here from all over the U.S. to be united with their new friends.

Davis said that people find it hard to admit that they are losing their sight and this keeps them from contacting Guard Dogs. “A false pride takes over, especially when their loss is gradual,” she explained. “We had a young man who had been house-bound for six years. He was afraid to venture forth until someone told him about Guide Dogs.”

Soon, the young man had his “new best friend.” He walked around the Boring campus with his new companion, Davis recalled, and “discovered a new independence and freedom. Now he and his dog walk two miles to the post office each day! There are many such stories to be told.”

GDB’s dog of choice is the Labrador. Labs are adaptable, gentle and make excellent companions, according to Guide Dogs staff, and so 80% of the guide dogs come from this breed. (Golden Retrievers are a not-so-close second.) “Labs are smaller and less aggressive than German Shepherds,” Davis said. “They also have shorter walking strides,” making it easier for anyone to walk with them.

Something else Davis noticed about Labs: “Somehow they actually seem to understand that their partner is blind, that they depend on them.” Davis said, “You can see it happen while they train together here.”

Each new client comes to the Boring facility at Guide Dog’s expense. They are flown here and stay at the very comfortable facility. Culinary professionals prepare food during their stay. (Some people find the only drawback to their stay at the Boring campus is added poundage! Small price, others say.) Training lasts for two to four weeks, depending on the client’s experience with handling a guide dog. Each step of the process is carefully monitored and adjusted.

Cindy Stephens, on the right, brought Georgine into her home in Hood River, Oregon, and did the initial training. The guide dog is now helping Kate Loveless of Virginia. On graduation night, dog, trainer and new owner are united.
Photo: David Nelson

Completion of their training program is rewarded by a graduation ceremony. Recently, Guide Dogs in little Boring graduated eight proud new guide dog companions — along with their emotional, excited human counterparts. A Guide Dogs for the Blind graduation ceremony is worth watching. (Caution: hankies will probably be necessary.)

On graduation night, the process seems so effortless that it appears that some mysterious, never-ending supply of guide dogs is funneled through the campus, always at the ready for new partners. This is far from true. Guide dogs are raised by families who love to work with these animals so others may experience freedom, safety and independence.

At about eight weeks, pups are placed in volunteers’ homes where the young dogs are taught good habits, obedience and social skills. The families make these loving animals a part of their homes and hearts until the dogs reach 14 to 18 months; then, the animals are returned to Guide Dogs for fine tuning.

The entire process is an example of true sacrificial giving. There have been so many songs and poems written to express what love is. Guide Dogs for the Blind is love in real life.

At last, the volunteer families and the new owners/partners meet on graduation day. The visually impaired people are brought onto a stage, warmed by a room filled with encouraging spectators. They anxiously await that first snuggle, the expectant rub against the leg, announcing, “It’s me. I’m here for you. You can count on me from now on.”

You could tell that these people challenged by a lack of sight were thinking, “At last, my life will improve.”

One of the recent graduates flew to Boring from Manassas, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Kate Loveless is an effusive, lovely, ever-smiling young woman who brought a force of optimism with her upon that stage. Her smile came from deep within her soul, filling her eyes.

Kate, accompanied by her escort, walked positively onto center stage — and faces in the crowd reflexively returned her smile.

“When I was nine, I mostly lost all my sight,” Kate began. “Everything just went black. I never had good eyesight but that was the end. I was moved to the front row in school but finally it didn’t matter. The hardest thing was not being able to ride my bike any more.”

Dogs, trainers and new owners mingle on graduation night.
Photo: David Nelson

Kate Loveless was diagnosed with a form of brain cancer that doctors informed her would be terminal. She is now 27 and still smiling. As we talked, she explained that many people who are diagnosed with this type of brain cancer experience terrible side effects, such as permanent damage to organs and thought processes. “I’m pretty lucky,” she said. “It could have been worse. It only affected my optic nerve and pituitary glands! Of course when I go through chemo therapy, that’s pretty bad.”

She has had her new female yellow Lab, Georgine, for about four weeks and is thrilled. “Oh, she’s my baby,” Loveless said. “I’ll have to get a stronger vacuum now.” Kate has been without a dog for almost five years. She grew up with dogs. Her dad always had more than one. Georgine “gives me comfort and safety,” Loveless explained. “I live outside (Washington) D.C. And a single white female alone is a target walking the streets. But with Georgine, I feel safe and protected.”

“I went to the mall today,” she said. “And we just walked everywhere with no problems. I was free to “˜look’ all around, knowing Georgine would take care of me. It is wonderful.”

Kate worked for CBS television until recently, when she was laid off. Now she is not sure what will happen in her work life, but because her dog and the flight were free, she was not forced to go into debt to find her new friend, guide and companion.

“She’s awesome,” Kate said of Georgine. “And Guide Dog for the Blind trainers are phenomenal. They answered every stupid question and took their time with me. I would refer anybody to GDB.”

Guide Dogs for the Blind takes no government money and they do not charge for any of its services. The organization is impressive in a world of financial deception and greed. Their business is simply creating a better, safer life for those with impaired vision.

Michele Davis closed the graduation ceremonies by saying, “If you know anyone who is blind, tell them about us.”

And then tell them to call GDB at either 503-668-2100 or 800-295-4050.

David Nelson is a former tree trimmer, power lineman, professional photo journalist and newspaper reporter. He lives in Sandy, Oregon.

Photo: David Nelson

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