On Sunday April 13, 2014, Guide Dogs of America added a fresh chapter to its storied history, breaking ground on a new 15,900 square-foot indoor/outdoor visitor and education center.
GDA President Dale Hartford told me that the Phil and Macki Singer Visitor and Education Center will enable GDA to grow its community outreach and education at its 7.5 acre campus in Sylmar, Calif., and to expand its ability to train and provide guide dogs free of charge to blind people across the U.S. and Canada.
The recipient of new GDA guide dog Archie and his puppy raiser share a sweet moment at graduation.
“We needed to grow to do more, and this is going to position our organization for the future, allowing us to provide more services to the community,’’ Hartford says.
It was an exciting day for all of us gathered at the GDA center, and especially for Macki Singer, whose donation of $3.3 million is funding the much-needed new center.
“This is a legacy to my late husband, Phil,’’ Macki Singer told me after the groundbreaking. “We have been supporting this wonderful organization since 1994 and I am just thrilled to participate.’’
The 15,900-square-foot Phil and Macki Singer Visitor and Education is tentatively scheduled to open in 2015.
The important mission of GDA to change the lives of the blind and vision impaired was spotlighted in a graduation ceremony, where 10 blind individuals who made up GDA Class 383 had completed training with new guide dogs, and celebrated the occasion with those who had raised the dogs from puppies.
The handoff was filled with emotion and hope and promise. One guide dog recipient proudly sporting a Vietnam Veteran cap sang a moving rendition of the song “Side by Side’’ to his new guide dog Archie (see video).
GDA puppy raisers Brian Harris and Jacque Laffoon with their new GDA puppy, Charlotte, a German Shepherd Dog.
All of this is possible due to the courage of one remarkable man. In 1948 Joseph Jones Sr., a retired member of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, lost his wife, leaving him to raise a 10 year old son.
Then in 1948 he began going blind.
He applied to all the existing guide-dog schools, but he was declined because of his “advanced age.” He was only 57 years old.
He turned to his union for help, and in 1948 the union helped fund the founding of a new guide dog school, one of the first to be founded by a blind individual. It was also one of the first schools to adopt a policy of no age discrimination.
The school graduated 18 guide dog teams the first year. By the time Jones took a guide dog for himself hundreds of others had already been given the gift of sight because of his drive and determination.
Puppy Charlotte is just starting out on her adventure as a guide dog.
Today, the GDA has graduated more than 3,200 guide dog teams, and the union remains a stalwart partner, providing critical financial and other support.
It costs GDA approximately $42,000 to breed, raise and train one guide dog and give instruction to each team, as well as follow-up services throughout the team’s working life. All services are provided at no charge to the recipient.
At seven weeks of age, GDA puppies are placed with volunteer puppy raisers. More than 200 families in Southern California volunteer to provide these puppies with a nurturing and enriched environment. They then return to GDA at 18 months to begin four to six months of professional training from licensed guide dog intructors for their new career as guide dogs.
To learn more about Guide Dogs of America, call 818-599-3592 or visit Guidedogsofamerica.org.