Thursday, January 01, 2009

Finding the perfect match between a visually impaired man and his guide dog

In the past, Chris McNamee had trouble navigating through airports to visit his adult children living in three major U.S. cities: Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco.

But that was before meeting his dog, Max, at Southeastern Guide Dogs more than two years ago.
McNamee, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that slowly eliminates peripheral, low light and night-light vision, has benefited from having Max help him maneuver through grocery stores, airports and other everyday places.

“My world has been completely changed in terms of my confidence and safety and ability to independently navigate,” the Anna Maria resident said.

The Southeastern Guide Dogs, an organization that works to create a partnership between visually impaired individual and a guide dog, has received a $5,000 grant from the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund of the Manatee Community Foundation that will help provide a visually impaired Lakewood Ranch resident with a guide dog and training.

“We would love to have students from everywhere, but a student specifically from Lakewood Ranch would be supported by this grant,” said Patsy French, director of development and communication for the organization.

“We appreciate their investment in their community. This is a community investment in someone with a disability.”

Anyone who is legally blind and older than 18 qualifies for a guide dog, she said. The cost is free for the dog, residential training and lifetime follow up services for the person with the need.

About 11 classes, which last 26 days, are held throughout the year. Students in the classes range from age 19 to 81, she said. The next class is scheduled to start Jan. 5.

Mary Ellen Motyl, Lakewood Ranch Community Fund program coordinator, said the grant for the Southeastern Guide Dogs is one of 21 grants totaling $101,743 that were distributed to various nonprofit organizations.

About 53 grants worth a total of $318,000 were requested during the application process this year. Among some of the organizations to receive funding was the Center for Autism and Resource & Education, Stillpoint House of Prayer shoe program and the YMCA at Lakewood Ranch.

A grants committee reviews all the applications and determines how much funding can be given to different needs in the community, she said.

“There are all sorts of different organizations out there. The committee just felt that this was something that might be overlooked if we weren’t able to support them,” she said.

Southeastern Guide Dogs has changed the quality of life for McNamee, who recommends the organization to anyone who needs help with navigation. McNamee also found that the organization was willing to help and had a good attitude toward the students.

“These people have a servant’s heart,” he said. “It’s not a job to them. It’s a mission. Everybody there is working to enrich other people’s lives.”

Jessica Klipa, Herald staff reporter, can be reached at 708-7906.


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