When the students of Southeastern Guide Dogs Class #300 came together in April, some were experienced alumni receiving successor dogs, while others were brand new to the life-changing experience of being paired with a guide dog. All found the friendship, trust, companionship, and peace of mind that comes through their extraordinary four-legged partners. Now these individuals and the furry friends are ready to take on the world.
Meet the Graduates:
Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 33, Debbie Hall kept her driver’s license until she was 42. “That’s when the road disappeared,” she explains. She left behind her career as a hairdresser and cashier, and now her vision has deteriorated to near total blindness. After being stuck at home more than usual because of Covid and because of retiring her guide dog, Nina, Debbie is hopeful about resuming her active social life with Sasha, a sweet, bubbly yellow Lab and her third guide. “She’s go-go-go!” says Debbie about her dog’s energetic personality. Debbie enjoys hiking in nature, swimming, dining out, meeting friends, and visiting with her teenage and young adult grandchildren. She’s also taking technology classes and plans to enter the workforce again, so whenever she’s ready to head out the door, Sasha will be one step ahead.
Eric Bentley lost his vision from sympathetic uveitis, a rare inflammatory response in both eyes after trauma to one eye. His dad was his best friend and taught him many things as they went everywhere together. When his dad moved farther away, Eric hung his phone around his neck, and—using FaceTime—his dad guided “their” daily walks around town. Eric’s parents encouraged him to never say “can’t” and to keep a positive outlook. This past October, Eric’s dad passed away. And although nothing can replace him, a big yellow Lab named Legacy will help fill a void of companionship and give Eric the ability to walk out the front door again.
Stacey Evans was one of the first in the U.S. identified with a rare congenital disease called choroidal osteoma. Benign bony tumors grew beneath the retina and too close to the optic nerve to risk intervention. Diagnosed at 14, Stacey’s symptoms came and went until they stabilized when she was 20, but her eyesight was reduced to a little peripheral vision and what she calls “finger vision”—being able to see only what’s directly in front of her face. A seventh grade special education teacher, Stacey now navigates with the mighty Zeus, an expressive and happy yellow Lab. Soon, they will camp and hike with her active, outdoorsy family. Stacey plans to teach her students greater disability awareness and show them that people with disabilities can do whatever they set their minds to.
A rare congenital condition called Peters Plus Syndrome affected Kimberly McKarin at birth, causing a “laundry list” of physical issues that required multiple surgeries. From blindness to short stature and other health complications, she has overcome many obstacles and worked her way to law school at Georgetown University. Already she’s done consulting work and traveled to Switzerland and France. Now, she’ll travel with a funny yet serious dog named Donald. Kimberly’s first guide dog will help her navigate curbs, get around obstacles—especially those overhead—and through Washington, D.C.’s crowds. Unlike a cane, Donald gives her more independence and mobility as well as companionship and unconditional friendship.
Two years ago, Brooklyn Shannon was a wife, mother of a 4-year-old, a pharmaceutical rep who relied on driving for work, and a volunteer with foster care children. At a routine Lasik consultation, Brooklyn suddenly learned she was losing her vision—and soon after, her hearing as well. Brooklyn has Usher’s Syndrome, autoimmune retinopathy, and retinitis pigmentosa. Enter Lolita, who joins an outdoorsy family that boats, hikes, and plays sports. “Blindness is not who you are; it’s just part of who you are,” adds Brooklyn. “Life is what you make of it, and I can either choose to be a sad person or I can choose to be a happy person. Most people would rather be around happy people.” Now Brooklyn adds a happy guide dog to the mix!
As a newborn, Lygia Bohan received too much oxygen in the incubator resulting in retinopathy of prematurity, which left her with no vision at all. Her three children and four grandchildren all live nearby, and they are excited to meet her new furry best friend, a petite and cute black Lab named Willie. Willie is her second guide dog, but her first in almost 40 years. A tandem bike rider, swimmer, and fan of activities like ceramics at her neighborhood clubhouse, Lygia looks forward to all the positive changes Willie will bring. She will travel more easily, be able to better concentrate on her surroundings, and most especially, feel safer in the busy South Florida traffic.
John Golom lost his central vision six years ago due to Dandy Walker syndrome, a congenital brain malformation with multiple debilitating effects. Blindness came gradually, but related brain ailments have affected John’s life and activity level. Despite his health challenges, however, the teen is dually enrolled in high school and college. He looks forward to more independence with the help of his first guide dog, Dawson. With Dawson, John plans to move to his own apartment soon and to pursue a career as a teacher for the visually impaired. But first, he looks forward to happy times outdoors with Dawson, especially gardening and swimming.
About Southeastern Guide Dogs
Southeastern Guide Dogs transforms lives by creating and nurturing extraordinary partnerships between people and dogs. Our organization operates the most advanced training facilities of any service dog organization in the world. Our experts breed, raise, and train elite working dogs—including guide dogs, service dogs, and skilled companion dogs—and provide life-changing services for people with vision loss, veterans with disabilities, and children with significant challenges such as vision loss or the loss of a parent in the military. Pursuing our mission since 1982, Southeastern Guide Dogs now has over 1,200 dogs under our auspices.
All of our services—which include state-of-the-art research on canine health and development; selective breeding; expert dog training; comprehensive on-campus student instruction; and the most robust alumni support program in North America—are provided at no cost to recipients. We rely 100% on private donations. Southeastern Guide Dogs has the distinction of being dually accredited by the two premier, global accreditation bodies: the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International. Learn more at www.GuideDogs.org.