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Instructor Dave Ponce introduces graduating class #373.
With graduation season fast approaching, Guide Dogs of America kicked things off on Sunday with the formal graduation of Class 373.

Eleven of the 12 teams (one was unable to attend and was represented by a family member) took to the stage, confidently ascending the stairs and finding a seat with the assistance of their newly partnered guide dogs.

Each graduate was joined by the volunteer who raised their individual dog. Most of the dogs visibly remembered their puppy raisers, whom they hadn’t seen for six months, and burst into a fit of tail-wagging excitement. It was no doubt a bittersweet moment for the raisers, who had to refrain from reciprocating and remember the dogs are working and aren’t to be social with others when in-harness.

Tears of happiness were shed by many as the graduates and puppy raisers spoke. Class spokesperson Mark Davis of South Carolina, opened remarks with an impassioned thank you delivered in a soft-spoken, southern drawl.

“It means so much to be able to go down the road with the help of a dog and not have to hold onto a person,” he said. “When we first came here, we weren’t broken, but we were splintered, and now… A lot of people would have put us on the back shelf, but y’all didn’t.”

Fellow graduates’ comments were equally moving.

“I’ll be able to take my children to the park.”

“The gift you’ve given me and my family cannot be explained.”

“I can’t wait to go home and show (my dog) my life.”

And my favorite, when graduate Ari Hughes, a young man with myriad tattoos and gauge earrings, tearfully announced toward the crowd, “You can cry now, mom.  We did it!”

Students will remain on-campus for one more week of training in order to fine-tune any issues specific to their individual lifestyles.

The next incoming group of students will graduate on July 8.

 
 
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Photo by Stephanie Colman
Friday the 13th ended on an inspirational note for members of Valley Hills Obedience Club, as they listened to Guide Dogs of America’s Lorri Bernson recount the experience of losing her vision and gaining a guide dog.

With Guide Dog Carter at her side, Bernson spoke to the nearly 40 club members in attendance for more than an hour, providing an overview of the school and an honest account of her personal journey from sighted to blind and from cane-user to guide dog graduate.

Bernson, 49, lost her vision quite suddenly to diabetes when she was just 33 years old. She describes herself as a “very independent person,” and said the loss of independence was the hardest part of losing her eyesight.  

One especially impactful comment was how, out in public, strangers often hesitate to talk to a blind person because of the lack of opportunity for eye contact, and when they aren’t sure what to say, they don’t say anything.

“I was saddened to hear how lonely she felt in a crowd of sighted people unwilling to speak to her out of fear they might offend,” said Sue Blackburn of Westlake Village. But then I was so happy to learn that, beside the obvious aid provided by the dog, the dog also opens up opportunities for sighted people to interact with her.”

Other members were touched by hearing Bernson describe the relationship she shares with her current dog, Carter, and first guide dog, Nigel.

“My favorite comment was how she didn't want a dog at first because she was worried about how hard it will be when the dog passes away,” said Elisa Becker of Malibu. “It was nice to see and hear about the connection Lorri has with her dogs. They don't just work for her – they are her cherished pets, too.”

Note: A detail I found especially uplifting, was how Bernson negotiated an opportunity to throw the first pitch at a Dodger game in August 2011. I love her go-getter attitude!

 
 
Diane Victor of La Verne, Calif., is one of roughly 300 families who make up Guide Dogs of America’s team of volunteer puppy raisers. She’s currently raising her first guide dog puppy, Flora, a 12-month-old Labrador Retriever.

Years ago, she attended an open house at the Sylmar, Calif., campus, never expecting she’d one day become part of the volunteer family herself. Much like fellow volunteer Glyn Judson, Victor turned to puppy raising to help heal her broken heart after making the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her own canine companion of 17 years.

“My heart was broken and I wasn’t ready to have another dog and have to make those terrible decisions at the end of its life,” Victor said. “I thought, ‘What better thing could I ever do than raise a puppy for GDA?’ ”

Victor says she’s learned a lot in her 10 months with Flora.

“Raising a guide dog puppy benefits you in how you treat other people and in how you treat other dogs,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything more worthwhile. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true. You get a wonderful dog and the support of the organization.”

More than anything, Victor says raising a puppy reminds her to be thankful for her own good health.

“Boy does it remind me of my blessings,” she said. “How fortunate I am to have my mental, physical and emotional well-being. There are people not nearly as fortunate as I am, so why not do something to make such a positive difference in someone else's life?