For one brief hour on a sunny June afternoon, my life intersected with a 19-year- old young man’s. He walked away from that hour with his life changed forever. I walked away with an empty leash and a full heart.
Two years before, my family and I had returned from Hong Kong. We had lived in a 44 story high rise for four years, and were now back to our American lifestyle, backyard included. All that was missing was a dog. I shared my 8-year-old son’s love of dogs. My husband, however, didn’t. He thought he had found a way to table this discussion indefinitely. “Find a purpose for having a dog, son, and then we’ll talk.” That very week, Tad brought home a permission slip for a field trip to Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California. I immediately volunteered to chaperone. Voilà! We had found a purpose.
The rest is history. Tad and I attended the weekly puppy meetings, filled out paperwork, studied the manual we were given by Guide Dogs, and within a month or so, we were on our way to pick up a little 8-week-old yellow Lab male puppy named Arbor.
Our first objective was to help Arbor discover the joys of using the great outdoors for his potty. Next, we started basic obedience training: teaching “sit,” “down,” “wait,” and “don’t chew everything up!” Cute as he was, he had tiny, razor sharp teeth. But we loved him, anyway.
Every Tuesday night, we packed Arbor into the car and zoomed off to our weekly puppy socialization classes. In his official little green jacket, he was proudly welcomed at supermarkets, church and restaurants. More often than not, outings to socialize Arbor were very successful, however once or twice, our cheeks burning, we cleaned up after an unfortunate miscalculation of his need to relieve. It’s hard to look cool while cleaning up poop.
Arbor grew. And grew. And grew. By the age of one year, he was well over 80 pounds! And just a few months later, we received word that Arbor had been recalled to Guide Dogs for formal training. By the time we dropped our gentle giant off at Guide Dogs’ campus, we were bawling. It was hard to say goodbye. Even my stoic husband shed a few tears.
Now, our job was to wait. Guide Dog training can take 4-6 months. As the months went by, I let myself start thinking that he might really do it. He might just graduate!
Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Kansas, Jonathan Hill was researching getting a guide dog. Nearly blind from a rare syndrome called Bardet-Biedel, a genetic disease that results in progressive blindness, Jonathan didn’t let his poor vision limit his life. Not by a long shot. An eagle scout, an avid hiker and camper, a college student, Jonathan had big plans for life with his future guide. He contacted Guide Dogs for the Blind and received an application. Once the application was returned, Guide Dogs arranged to meet him to assess his travel skills in his home area and guide him through the application process. By learning about Jonathan, his needs and busy lifestyle, Guide Dogs would be able to find just the right dog for him.
Soon, Jonathon was busy packing to come to Guide Dogs for his one-month of training. The dogs that would be assigned to his class had completed their training in guidework and would spend the next month learning to work as a team with their new partners.
The day the students meet their dogs is always a memorable one for them, but that is his story to tell. All day, every day, Jonathan and Arbor worked on becoming an unstoppable team.
Twenty-eight days after Jonathan arrived at Guide Dogs, he and I met for the first time, right before the graduation ceremony. Immediately, I sensed why they had been paired. We had the honor of formally presenting Arbor to Jonathan at the ceremony. And afterwards, we said good-bye.
The car ride home was a solemn one. We knew that, most likely, we wouldn’t see Arbor again. But the very next evening, I received an e-mail from Jonathan’s mother, letting me know that the flight went well and they were back in Kansas. “Jonathan took Arbor on a walk to see his friend, and I realized something,” she wrote. “He hadn’t felt the confidence to walk to his friend’s house in years.” I leaned back in my chair, re-reading the e-mail. In just 24 hours, Arbor had already started changing Jonathan’s life.
And since then, those two have done more than most sighted people ever do. They’ve hiked the Oregon Trail all of the way to the Pacific Ocean. Jonathan has taken Arbor deep sea fishing off the Florida Keys. They have plans in the works to trek the Santa Fe Trail. And he always send me e-mails and postcards. Last year, I received the family’s Christmas card with Arbor’s name included in the imprint.
Since that first e-mail from Jonathan’s mother, I haven’t felt any tinge of loss. Only gain. And, by the way, we’re now raising our fifth Guide Dog puppy.
Find out more about Guide Dogs for the Blind here.