My smart, strong and independent friend Nancy Bollero traveled all the way from Urbana, Ill., to New Jersey to visit Whitney and me during our last weekend of training there. Nancy knows that during these first few days at home here in Chicago I need to dedicate my time to this new 58-pound bundle of Golden Retriever energy, so she generously offered to write a guest blog post for me.
Independent women, independent vision
I have been fascinated by the Seeing Eye and the whole process ever since I first met Beth and her first dog, Dora, more than 10 years ago. So when I found out Beth was allowed visitors on weekends, I jumped at the chance to go.
I started my visit on Saturday by tagging along with a group of 20 eight-year-old girl scouts who were going on a tour. Not a “tour” in the literal sense – out of respect for the students and their new dogs, visitors aren’t allowed in the residential facilities or the breeding station. The program I participated in with the Girl Scouts took place in the Seeing Eye’s Guest Lounge, their “Hallway of History” and their Dining Room (which was very nice, by the way!). We all gushed at the sight of sweet Seeing Eye puppies in a video they showed to start the program, and then we learned the history of the Seeing Eye.
In 1927, a 20-year-old blind man in Nashville named Morris Frank contacted an American woman who was in Switzerland training dogs to guide WWI veterans who had been blinded in the war. He told Dorothy Harrison Eustis that if she’d accept him as a student in Switzerland he’d promise to return to the United States with his German Shepherd and spread the word about these wonderful dogs. I read more about this remarkable woman in Miriam Ascarelli’s book Independent Vision: Dorothy Harrison Eustis and the Story of the Seeing Eye and learned that Dorothy Eustis was instrumental in seeing blind persons as first class citizens and is credited with helping change society’s views of people with disabilities. She was clearly an independent, energetic and original thinker who had a big impact on a lot of people.
And when I say a lot, I mean more than you think. Our tour guide told us that more than 15,000 blind people from the US, Canada and Puerto Rico have been to the Seeing Eye and matched with a dog. She then introduced us to Ginger Kutsch, a guide dog user in Morristown who talked with us about the ways Pixie, a petite German Sheppard, helps her in everyday life.
Then came Kim and Charlie. Kim is an apprentice dog trainer, and Charley is a gorgeous silky black lab who is going through his training. Kim has raised puppies for the Seeing Eye
since she was a kid, and she started the Seeing Eye apprentice program right after she graduated from college. As an apprentice she works for four months with a string of 8 to 10 dogs on socialization, training with a harness and teaching them all the skills they’ll need when paired with a human partner. When those 4 months are up, it’s time to spend another month working with the dog-and-person team at the school. Kim then sends her charges off into the world (just as Beth’s trainer has sent her off to Chicago with Whitney) and starts all over again with a new string of dogs.
Kim said training dogs for the Seeing Eye is all she ever wanted to do since her Mom got her involved in puppy raising at a young age. This echoed the experience of Lauren, a volunteer who was at the reception desk to greet weekend visitors (like me!) to the Seeing Eye.
Lauren has raised 6 puppies: five of them have been successfully matched, and one is a Mom having pups in the breeding station. She raises puppies through a program at University of Delaware now, and when she graduates she hopes to be accepted into the Seeing Eye apprentice program. No doubt with her smarts and skills, she will be a trainer one day. It is, in her words, all she has ever wanted to do.
One thing you hear over and over again is the devotion the staff at the Seeing Eye have to the dogs and to all the people they serve. I saw this dedication in action when I walked behind Beth and her new adorable dog on the leisure path and saw Beth put Whit through her paces. We stopped at one of the pavilions along the way and Beth and I got to talking about the way popular culture represents women these days. Since we had both landed at Newark Airport from Illinois, we couldn’t help but think about Real Wives of New Jersey and Jersey Shore. There certainly is a lack of solid, strong and shall we say ‘normal’ women (and men, for that matter) on TV.
So how great that those girl scouts I toured with had an opportunity to learn about and meet some strong, smart women. The Seeing Eye is chock full of them: from Dorothy Eustus to Ginger, Kim, Lauren. And of course, Beth. One of the strongest smartest women I know.
The Seeing Eye offers public tours of its Main Campus on select Saturdays, Mondays and Thursdays throughout the year. There is no charge for tours, but donations are gladly accepted and greatly appreciated. To schedule a tour, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 973.539.4425.