A.J. Johnson and Martin

For A.J. Johnson and his guide dog, Martin, the phrase ‘a dog is a man’s best friend’ represented much more than a simple game of fetch or a belly scratch — it represents everyday survival. Martin died last month and Johnson needs fundraising help to get a new MIRA dog.

For A.J. Johnson and his guide dog, Martin, the phrase ‘a dog is a man’s best friend’ represents much more than a simple game of fetch or a belly scratch — it represents everyday survival.

Johnson, a 2011 Pinecrest High School graduate, was born blind after his optic nerves did not fully develop. For the past five years, Johnson has trusted Martin, a Bernese Mountain dog-Labrador mix, for constant guidance and companionship.

“Martin gave A.J. so much freedom,” said Penny Johnson, Johnson’s mom. “We could let A.J. loose here in Southern Pines, and he could find his way to the bakery shop or run errands to the post office.”

But on May 3, Johnson lost his best friend to lymphoma.

“A.J. is very distraught. His social skills were very poor before he got Martin, but Martin brought out his social skills,” Penny Johnson said. “Now, he is shutting back down into a shell. It’s hard to watch.”

Johnson received Martin in 2011 through MIRA Foundation USA, a Pinehurst-based nonprofit that provides guide dogs to blind children between the ages of 11 to 17.

“Imagine putting on a blindfold and trying to find your way around — it’s not that easy,” said Bob Baillie, co-founder of MIRA USA. “With a guide dog, all you have to do is say ‘bathroom’ and he will take you to the bathroom.”

Founded in Canada in 1991, MIRA was the only organization to provide guide dogs to children in that age group until MIRA USA was founded in 2009 by Baillie.

Baillie lost his sight due to complications from heart surgery. He was forced to rely on a cane and found everyday life difficult. At the suggestion of a close friend, Guy Bouvier, Baillie began researching the option of obtaining a MIRA guide dog, leading to the partnership of MIRA Canada and MIRA USA.

Over the past seven years, MIRA USA has provided 25 children with guide dogs.

“You have no idea how much of a difference these dogs make. They help the children socially, psychologically — there’s no comparison,” said Baillie.

Similar to Johnson, Baillie lost his best friend and first MIRA dog, Devon, to bone cancer in 2012.

Baillie said he couldn’t go back to his cane and received his second MIRA guide dog, DJ — short for Devon Junior — in September 2012.

“I couldn’t imagine life without DJ. He even knows my post office box number,” Baillie said.

Baillie has served as a role model to Johnson and pushed him to apply for a second guide dog.

“A.J. is a very good dog user. He told me he didn’t want to get a new dog, but I told him he has to,” Baillie said.

“He can’t go back to a cane; it’s not the same.”

But since he’s now 24, Johnson can no longer apply for a guide dog through MIRA Foundation USA. He has applied for a guide dog through The Seeing Eye in New Jersey, the oldest existing guide dog school in the world.

“It’s a very, very good organization, and I know they will help A.J. a lot,” Baillie said.

The Seeing Eye and MIRA USA both train and provide guide dogs to blind individuals. But MIRA covers the total cost for a child to receive a dog through the organization, while The Seeing Eye does not.

Each student who receives a dog through Seeing Eye is asked to pay $150 for their first visit to the organization and $50 for each subsequent visit, a fee that has remained unchanged since 1934.

This fee includes the cost of the dog, along with equipment, the student’s training with the dog, room and board during the 18 to 25 days the student spends at the school for training, round-trip transportation, and follow-up services.

For Johnson to receive a new dog, Penny Johnson said it will cost the family about $5,000. She has started a

GoFundMe.com account called “Eyes for A.J.” to raise money.

Johnson is attending Sandhills Community College and working toward an associate degree in education. Penny Johnson said if her son is unable to receive another dog, finishing his degree will be very difficult.

“With Martin, A.J. was able to walk anywhere at Sandhills and go to class. If he doesn’t have a dog, he can’t do that. He’ll have to confide in his cane,” she said.

“When Martin died, A.J. said, ‘Mom, I didn’t only lose my vision once, I lost it twice,” she said, holding back tears.

“He’s just very deserving of another dog.”

Contact Cailyn Derickson at cailynd@live.unc.edu.

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