On a Saturday afternoon I am sitting at a lunchtime gathering in Irvine, Calif., with about 150 people, all waiting eagerly for a puppy to arrive.
Soon a “puppy stork’’ appears, cradling a bundle of love: a warm, cuddly Yellow Labrador Retriever named Connie. As the cute as a button, sweet little pup comes into view, “oooohs’’ and “ahhhhs’’ fill the room.
It is a moment rich with sweetness and hope. Somewhere out there is someone who needs this dog, and one day this little Lab will transform a life.
The 11-week-old is the newest member of Guide Dogs for the Blind, here to meet her puppy-raising family for the first time, setting in motion a process that begins with basic housetraining and learning social manners, and will result in a partnership, forever changing the life of someone who is blind or visually impaired.
Anyone who raises a puppy, only to selflessly give it to another, is a special person. Even so, Connie’s new family, the Howards, stand apart. This is their 20th guide dog puppy.
Like the other 19 guide dogs they have raised, they will care and train Connie until she is 14- to 18-months-old and goes into the formal training program at Guide Dogs for the Blind’s campus in San Rafael, Calif.
“We got our first puppy when I was just 9 years old,’’ says daughter Amanda Howard, now grown and beaming as she carries Connie around the room so that each person can meet the darling puppy.
Sitting at one table are Kent and Paulette Greenwald with Sweeney. A year ago the puppy stork brought their Golden Lab, now only months away from heading off for final training and placement.
“This is our third puppy to raise,’’ says Kent, with Sweeney close by his side, clad in his green puppy-in-training vest. The couple enjoy not only getting to know the dogs, but also the fun of sharing the experience with other puppy raisers in their VIP 3 puppy raiser club. “We all go on two events a month, social outings and training sessions,’’ says Kent. “We take the puppies to fire stations, so they won’t be afraid of sirens, or we go on train rides, so they can get used to traveling and being around others.’’
Of course, the hard part is when the puppy goes off to guide-dog school. “We try to get another one right away so we don’t cry so much,’’ Kent shares.
All the puppy raisers are volunteers, and someone asks if they are paid. Yes, but in something much better than money. “It is incredibly rewarding to go to a graduation at Guide Dogs for the Blind and meet the person who is getting the dog,’’ Kent says. “It is the most fulfilling experience I have ever had.’’
The opportunity to transform lives and to work with such passionate, dedicated people is what drew Paul Lopez, new president and chief executive officer, to join Guide Dogs for the Blind just three months ago.
“I am so inspired by the staff, the puppy raisers, breeders and trainers, and the students who overcome such adversity,’’ says Lopez, a dog lover who grew up with Bassett Hounds and Beagles. “What do these dogs mean to the students? One said: ‘I got my sight back,’ ’’ meaning the dog meant freedom and independence.
The mission of Guide Dogs for the Blind has not changed in 70 years of providing dogs free of charge to the blind and visually impaired, all funded through private donations. But Lopez, who devoted more than 25 years in Ophthalmology working with products, clinicians and patients to battle sight-threatening diseases, says the need has never been greater.
“There is an epidemic of diabetes,’’ says Lopez, who spent much of his medical career targeting two leading causes of blindness: diabetic macular edema and age-related macular degeneration.
As part of a mission to meet the need and to sustain Guide Dogs for the Blind as a world leader in aiding the visually impaired, Lopez says the organization is raising $16 million to construct a new student housing center on its San Rafael, Calif., campus.
To learn more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, puppy raising and other volunteer opportunities, visit www.guidedogs.com