Dylan Boggs, 15 (left), and Julia LaGrand, 11 get acquainted with dogs Choucas and Diabolo as Eric St-Pierre and Julie Parisien look on. The MIRA Foundation, which was founded by Mr. St-Pierre, is dedicated to helping disabled individuals by teaming them with dogs bred and fully trained to respond to their adaptation and rehabilitation needs.
Two young candidates for guide dogs spent the weekend in Southern Pines trying their hand at leading these highly-trained animals. Sponsored by MIRA Foundation USA, the two-day evaluation includes a comprehensive review of each student’s eligibility based on their readiness, orientation and mobility skills.
Dylan Boggs is an 8th grade student at Sandhills Theater Arts Renaissance School [STARS] in Vass. He is legally blind but does have some very limited vision. His mother, Jennifer Sanchez, said they started the application process to receive a MIRA guide dog two years ago. The family moved to Pinehurst in September but had been commuting with Dylan to STARS for two years, as she said the smaller school provides a safe and comfortable educational environment for him.
“Dylan is really good at memorizing the layout of a place and knows where to go. All the kids at STARS know him but when he has to go outside of a familiar area, it is challenging,” Sanchez said. “What little vision he does have, he uses very well.”
Julia LaGrand is a 6th grade student and traveled to Southern Pines for the evaluation weekend with her parents from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She lives fairly close to the city and works weekly, one-on-one with an orientation and mobility teacher to help her learn to navigate the public transportation system and busy, multi-lane intersections.
“We started the application process early last year. All year long we’ve been hoping and hoping that she would get to come here for evaluation weekend,” said Julia’s mother, Melissa LaGrand.
Both LaGrand and Boggs are under the watchful eye of Eric St. Pierre and his assistant, Julie Parisien. St. Pierre founded MIRA Canada and has trained guide dogs for more than 35 years. The organization breeds an intentional cross of a Burnese Mountain dog and Labrador retriever to attain the calm, patient dog necessary for this type of work. Called a Labernese or more commonly a St. Pierre dog, in honor of the MIRA founder, the canines provide much more than mobility assistance.
The American Printing House for the Blind reports there are approximately 60,000 visually-impaired children in the United States. Imagine being a blind teenager, walking with a white cane. A cane is a stigma and tends to be isolating and inhibiting for a visually-impaired person, whereas a dog provides a social bridge to the sighted community. Not only are dogs social creatures, they also offer stability and a level of protection through their visual awareness training that a can never replicate.
“Having a [guide] dog makes such a big difference in people’s lives. I know: I live it,” said MIRA USA co-founder, Bob Bailie. “I am in the same boat as these kids. I started working with a cane at 65 and my skills were pretty bad. Having a dog allowed me to more independent. I am very blessed to have DJ, plus he has a great cutesy factor.”
A local developer, Bailllie lost his vision in 2008 following complications from heart surgery. He was encouraged by his friend Guy Bouvier to get a guide dog, as Bouvier’s daughter has benefited from a MIRA guide dog. Since then, Baillie has received two MIRA guide dogs, DJ and Devon. His first dog, Devon, was diagnosed with cancer and died two weeks shy of his seventh birthday. DJ, whose name is short for Devon Junior, has been with Baillie since September 2012.
Bouvier, and Bob and Elaine Baillie co-founded MIRA USA in 2008. While based in Pinehurst, it is a national organization and the only program in the country that provides guide dogs to children between the ages of 11 and 17 years. The cost for each child to go through the entire process, from application to evaluation to being placed with a dog, is substantial - estimated at $60,000. The organization not only provides intensive training of the dog and the child but also an array of related support services for their families all free of charge. To date, MIRA USA has provided 21 guide dogs to blind students across the nation.
If Boggs and LaGrand are selected to continue with the MIRA program, they will be invited to a month long intensive training in July that is completed in Quebec, Canada. Once there, each candidate is matched with three potential guide dogs and evaluated to see which pair makes sense. For the evaluation weekend, St. Pierre brought four-year old Choucas and two-year old Diablo, to work with the teens.
“Right now we are processing 26 applications but we don’t have the funding to supply all these dogs,” said MIRA USA’s executive director, Richard Chatham. “We typically place three to four dogs a year on average. If we had the funding, we could meet the demand to place more.”
Currently the organization has two upcoming fundraisers and welcome community interest and support of their efforts. On June 25, MIRA USA is holding an event at Southern Pines Brewery and then will be hosting a golf tournament on August 13. For more information or sponsorship opportunities, please visit www.mirausa.org
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