Young People Assessed for MIRA Program
BY KATHERINE SMITH
Imagine perceiving Southern Pines 2012 Springfest with closed eyes. The crackling smell of concession stand food floats as aimlessly as the happy conversations. The bass rift of Pinestock thumps, and clover feels spongy underfoot on the open grass.
During Springfest on Saturday, April 28, four blind children took turns navigating through the noise and common obstacles, using for the first time a MIRA guide dog instead of a cane.
The evaluations performed that afternoon are the second step taken in a process to receiving a guide dog from MIRA.
Calli Bowman-Tomlinson is a 12-year-old from Michigan.
She hopes for a dog in order to safely walk across busy 19 Mile Intersection to Browning Elementary School.
Calli loves math and spelling, and wants to be a massage therapist. Her wheelie bag is so full of books that the bus calls it cargo and won't allow her on board with it.
"A dog would also help me in goalball," she says. Calli is one year away from being accepted in the woman's league three-on-three competitive sport. Goalball consists of teams blocking a three-pound ball filled with bells from rolling over their back boundaries.
"Even though she's just 12, her teachers have helped her develop so many skills and said that she is ready to apply this year," says her mother, Heather. "I was just so pleased with the MIRA USA program."
Max Lamm is an 11-year-old from Pittsburgh.
He says he's been wanting a guide dog for almost a year to help him get around school and let him participate in more sports.
He runs track, loves to play football in the backyard, waterski, snow ski, tubing (both on snow and water), and play soccer. Max was born with cancer in both eyes.
"He's fought it so cheerfully," his father says. "Max has taught me more than I can tell."
Madeline Link is 14 and from Allentown, Pa.
"I was always told that I had to be 16 before I could use a guide dog," she says. "I was so excited when we found MIRA."
Madeline was born blind and slowly gained some light perception. She says that a guide dog would give her what every 14-year-old craves: "independence."
"I'm starting Allentown Central Catholic High school next year," she says. "It's a huge school, but with a dog, it will be an easier transition."
She says that it will also be nice to walk with just her dog and her best friend down to the shopping center.
Seventeen-year-old Preston Davis III is from Fayetteville.
He says that while he wasn't ready for another adult guide dog program, MIRA seems like a perfect fit.
"I've going to UNC Pembroke in the fall," he says. "I'll be in the wide open spaces, and I need freedom for that."
Preston wants to major in piano and minor in audio production.
"Music has been around and it'll always be around so that's job security," he says jokingly. "I can't wait to get started, and I hope I'll have a dog with me."
The evaluation on all four children consisted of St. Pierre's directions to them while using their cane, and then head dog trainer Ian McDernott guidance to them while holding a dog harness.
The children are bordered by their parents and MIRA members while they cross streets, walk in straight lines, turn corners, and do a series of listening exercises.
"I'm looking to match a good dog with a good person," McDernott says.
"When she picked up that harness, she glowed with confidence," Heather Bowman-Tomlinson says about her daughter Calli, who was paired with a dog named Nano. "It chokes me up. I'm just so proud of her."
The word "mira" is a Latin root meaning "to wonder at, wonderful; causing one to smile." In Spanish, "mira" translates as "look."
The word denotes sight and aspiration, precisely what the organization seeks to give to the blind.
In 1981, director and CEO Eric St. Pierre founded MIRA when he presented the first two guide dogs, trained in Quebec, to two blind individuals.
St. Pierre says that his love for dogs initially led him to work with canines at a police department.
"But at around 30 years old, I was searching myself for how to use dogs in a positive way, not for guarding or action," he says. "I was very attached to my dogs and wanted them to do good things. Then I was introduced to a guide dog."
St. Pierre says that he was asked to assess a dog from Florida who wasn't adjusting well to the inclement Canadian weather.
He then began taking courses and studying to understand how a suitable guide dog should perform.
"Then I combined the skill of a trained dog with the need of the individual," he says. "Since then, we started an actual organization and have improved the technique with professional trainers because we know what works."
Ten years after St. Pierre began MIRA, he and his trainers began breeding and training dogs specifically for children to use. MIRA is now the only organization that gives guide dogs to children ages 11 to 17.
When Southern Pines local Bob Baillie went under the knife for a heart bypass, an artery was mistakenly cut and he lost the blood supply to his eyes. After being unconscious for two weeks, he awoke blind.
"It didn't even hit me until two months after I woke up that I would never be able to see again," he says. "All that I used to love to do - restoring antique cars, keeping botanical gardens - that's all gone. MIRA has given me a new mission in life."
Baillie says that he tried guide dogs in the U.S., but none served him as much as Devon, the Bernese Mountain dog that he received from MIRA Canada in 2008.
"Afterward, with just a little digging around in the U.S., I found that nobody trains dogs for children," he says.
Baillie says that the historically practical reasons for segregating the blind to a Braille school are irrelevant now.
"MIRA especially wants to get rid of the isolation that a sight-impaired person feels by giving them independence through a dog," he says.
He says that Devon guides their regular walks to Java Bean coffee shop and Lula's Cafe.
Devon knows the command "post office," puts his paws on the stairs, points his nose at the door, and leads Bailey to the post office box marked with a bump dot. Once he travels a route once or twice and hears voice commands, he unfailingly remembers.
"Unless it's you, you just can't fathom all that you are without when you lose sight," Baillie says. "Devon gave me some of that back and I wanted other people to have the same thing."
Baillie founded MIRA USA in February 2009. The foundation gave away to children their first two dogs in 2010 and six in 2011.
Executive Director Beth Daniels calls the guide dogs "a social bridge to the community. No one ever comes up to you and asks you how your cane is doing."
The dogs have a working career of 12 years, two of which are spent in training at a expansive farm in Canada. Children typically receive a cross between a Bernese Mountain dog and a Labrador. The cross-breeds are in their eighth generation and desirable for their size, intelligence and mild manner.
The dogs are embraced as more than navigational tools; they are adopted as a stable companion through the already tumultuous years from adolescence to adulthood.
The first step in receiving a guide dog is to submit documents - an application, a letter from an ophthalmologist and from the child's orientation and mobility instructor.
Once reviewed, the -applicants participate in an evaluation that measures their orientation and -mobility skills, spacial -perception and maturity level.
If confirmed, these applicants will travel to Montreal in July for 30 days of intense training and are then matched with a dog.
"The dog is essentially then on permanent loan to the child," Daniels says. "The child has the sole responsibility to feed, clean and work them, and that's all we ask."
Each dog costs about $60,000 to train but is given free to the child. MIRA receives no government assistance and is sustained entirely by private donations and fundraisers such as Dining in the Dark and Miles for MIRA.
"There's tremendous -support in this community, and we're so thankful for that," Daniels says.
For more information about the MIRA program, visit mira.ca/en/ or their headquarters at 112 N. Poplar St., Aberdeen.
Katherine Smith has been serving as an intern at The Pilot.
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