One of the programs Vets Helping Heroes supports is the “Paws for Patriots” program at Southeastern Guide Dogs located in Palmetto, Florida. Southeastern’s mission is to create and nurture a partnership between a visually impaired individual and a guide dog, facilitating life’s journey with mobility, independence and dignity. In 2003 one of their Board members, Bobby Newman, read about a young Marine named Mike Jernigan, who was blinded by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that the Veterans Administration does not provide guide dogs to soldiers. This spearheaded an effort by the Board and the school to bring awareness to top military leaders that they could serve these blinded soldiers and the “Paws for Patriots” program was born. Often an injury that leads to impaired vision can also cause a combination of physical disabilities. Southeastern Guide Dogs specializes in training dogs to assist in navigation for the visually impaired as well as to mitigate any additional disability the individual might have. In addition to guide dogs, the “Paws for Patriots” program provides service dogs specifically trained to ease the symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and places therapy dogs into military hospitals to spread cheer and encouragement and help wounded warriors heal from their injuries.
After the dogs complete their training and have been paired with their new handler, the dog and handler team go through a four week training period to learn how to work together and to bond with each other. Upon completion, friends and family are invited to their graduation ceremony. Southeastern provides the guide dog, equipment, single-room lodging, all meals, outings, instruction and post-graduation support completely free of charge, thanks to generous contributions.
Recently a few of the Vets Helping Heroes Board members, Mel Pollack, Sam Bierstock Paul Barreto and me, Pat Levenson took a trip to visit the Southeastern campus and we timed it to coincide with a graduation ceremony.
The evening of our arrival we met with Southeastern’s Development Director Patsy French, CEO Titus Herman and Board members Lea LeVines and Bobby Newman for dinner. Also in attendance were two heroes from the current conflicts, Mike Jernigan and Shawn Mello, their wives and of course, the wonderful service dogs they received through Southeastern’s “Paws for Patriots” program. We all sat entranced as these brave men recounted the stories of how they received their injuries, what they went through during their recoveries, and how they have benefited from their service dogs. It was gratifying for us to see the life changing impact of an assistance dog on their owners and families.
The next morning we arrived at the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus and started our day with a tour of the campus. We were pleased to be joined on our tour by Cindy Schwarzkopf, daughter of General Norman Schwarzkopf and Southeastern Board member Lea LeVines. Southeastern is a self contained training facility that includes among other things breeding and whelping facilities, a puppy nursery, their own full-time veterinarian and veterinary staff – and even a chef.
We spent a little time playing with a group of adorable “Goldador” puppies. This is the most common (but not only) breed of dog trained on campus. Combining the sensitivity of the Golden Retriever and the tolerance of the Labrador Retriever makes them first rate candidates as service dogs. Our tour guide was Jennifer Bement, Souteastern’s Media Relations Coordinator. Jennifer explained all the details that are considered for the best possible training environment including acclimation to various elements of daily life such as noises, weather conditions, navigational challenges and more. Their training starts at a few weeks old and typically takes two years to complete. The dogs spend a good part of that time in the care of puppy raisers.
As part of the tour we all got to participate in something they call a “blindfold walk.” We put on a pair of blackout glasses and were taken on a short walk down a path with a guide dog and trainer. The blindfold walk is intended to give a sighted person a tiny glimpse into what a guide dog can do for a vision impaired individual. It’s a humbling experience.
The tour was over and we headed to the graduation ceremony. Six graduates and their new partners sat before a room filled with friends, family and well wishers as we heard what events in their lives led them to be there that day and how their guide dog will give them the freedom to pursue what most of us take for granted. There were plans to attend school, work, travel, go hiking and camping and anything and everything in between. Things that might not have otherwise been possible without their new companions.
After the ceremony we were treated to a fantastic lunch created by Southeastern’s in-house chef. I didn’t think it was possible to feel any more motivated to work to raise money for such a noble cause, but as we were talking in the car on the way back we realized we were more charged up than ever.
There was a touching poem printed in the graduation ceremony program. No author was mentioned.
You love me; I’ll love you.
You walk with me; I’ll walk with you.
You lead me and I will follow, trusting you.
We’ll move Forward together™.
We would like to thank Southeastern Guide Dogs for their hospitality. Everyone was so nice. More than just a team of co-workers, we got a strong sense that they are a happy family
Southeastern Guide Dogs’ “Paws for Patriots” program is one of several programs Vets Helping Heroes supports in order to achieve our mission. Our goal is to provide a professionally trained assistance dog, prepared by a qualified instructor, to every disabled hero wounded in the global war on terrorism enabling them to live a life of dignity and self-reliance, whether they are visually impaired or have other special needs that require an assistance dog.