Last summer four instructors started training 28 one-and-a-half year old puppies to become Seeing Eye dogs. Jim Kessler, one of the Senior Managers of Instruction & Training at the
Seeing Eye, supervised these four instructors throughout the training process. On November 26, I arrived along with 18 other blind people to be matched with a Seeing Eye dog. Jim had phoned us all beforehand, read our paperwork and even visited a few of us at home before we arrived. He helped the instructors size up each of us to determine which of the dogs would match up best with our situations at home. Two days after we arrived, nineteen of us were introduced to a friend who will guide our way through the next decade. My new pal is Whitney, a Golden/Labrador Retriever cross with a goofy “smart bump” on the top of her head.
Jim hasn’t always worked for the Seeing Eye. “I worked for Lehman Brothers before it imploded, and then I worked for the Federal Reserve,” he told me.“ And I can tell you the very last day I ever went to work in Manhattan: it was September 11, 2001.” Jim was contemplating a career change before then, and 911 cemented the decision. From an article in the North Jersey Record:
The position requires a college degree, Kessler said. He worked for an investment bank and was considering a career change when the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, made him switch jobs. Kessler said he chose this position because it combined his interests in teaching,working with dogs and helping people.
After passing a three-year apprenticeship, Jim became an instructor in 2004. He was promoted to Senior Manager of Instruction and Training this year – we were the very first class he supervised.
The North Jersey Record article reports that salaries start in the $40,000 range for those in the Seeing Eye’s three-year apprentice training program, and that the salary for full instructors ranges from $50,000 to $85,000. Odds are that Jim Kessler took a significant paycut to work for the Seeing Eye, but he doesn’t talk about that. He talks instead about his pride in the instructors here, his love for the dogs, and his family at home. Jim and his wife have three beautiful daughters, and Whitney and I are going to meet two of them later today.
Let me explain. During this last week here students do “freelance” work – instructors expose us to some of the specific things we’ll be facing once we return home. Two students in my group of four are retired and live in communities without sidewalks, so they used freelance time learning how their dogs Alec (a black Lab) and Beckham (a Golden Retriever) would guide them safely along the sides of streets. One student in our group is a lecturer in the Cultral Anthropology department at Texas State University – our trainer took him to a local college to see how his new German Shepherd Bill navigates campus sidewalks.
Whitney and I went to New York City for freelance work on Saturday, and we returned there with our trainer yesterday to practice negotiating revolving doors and turnstiles, see how Whit deals with road construction on busy streets, and get a feel for how she handles crowds of pedestrians walking with/against us. Whitney made some mistakes, of course. I could read her body language through the harness as we reworked the errors, and I am happy to report that corrections don’t shake her confidence. “Oh, you meant for me to turn into Penn Station, Beth?” she seemed to say once. “Well, then, let’s back up a few steps and do it again, get it right this time.” She turns into the station, I follow her lead, and we’re off!
For my freelance trip today, Jim Kessler will chauffeur Whit and me to Warren G. Harding Elementary School in Kenilworth, NJ, where his daughter Emma is in third grade and Maeve is a big first grader. I already have three school visits scheduled in the Chicago suburbs in 2012, and the trip today will show us whether young Whit can sit still during a school presentation and resist all those adorable students reaching out to pet her. Wish us luck!