In November Melanie Ortiz faced a life-changing decision: Lose her sight or risk losing her life.
Nine years earlier, retinoblastoma, a fast-spreading and common cancer in children claimed Melanie’s right eye at age 3. Now, a malignant tumor on her left eye had doctors worried that if left intact, the cancer could spread to Melanie’s brain.
After much thought and many tears, Melanie made her decision: “Just take the eye out. I want to live.”
Now 13, Melanie is one of three children this year who will receive guide dogs through MIRA Foundation USA, a Pinehurst-based non-profit organization that was founded five years ago and provides guide dogs for blind or sight-impaired children ages 11 to 17. It is the only such organization in the world.
Theo Malkamaki, 11, of Concord, Ohio; Hope Bovard, 13, of Concord, N.C.; and Melanie, of Long Island, NY, on Friday will complete a month-long training session at the MIRA International campus in Canada. Theo and Melanie participated in an evaluation weekend in Pinehurst in April. Hope, who lost her vision in March, contacted MIRA after the evaluation weekend. A fourth student went to Canada only to decide to pursue getting a guide dog when she is older.
“This is a life changing experience for these children,” said Marijanet Doonan, president of MIRA Foundation USA. “Having a guide dog at a young age enhances the child’s ability to develop personal responsibility and self-confidence, as well as age-appropriate autonomy. “Guide dogs provide opportunities that open new doors and eliminate many of the barriers to self-reliance and full social inclusion for blind children.”
At first, Melanie said she didn’t understand why she had gone blind, but she thought one day it would become clear. “Well, if this had not happened I would not have met all the wonderful people at MIRA and I would not have this super guide dog, Baza. “
When first approached about getting a guide dog, Melanie worried it would be unfair for her to receive one because she had been blind for only months, while other children had been without sight for longer and had been training on orientation and mobility their entire lives.
Her parents and friends convinced her that it would be fair, saying that Melanie, like all the others seeking a guide dog through MIRA, would have to qualify.
She decided to try. Her hard work earned a chance to come to the evaluation weekend at the end of April. Her performance there earned her an invitation to the MIRA training center in Canada for a week. If she was good enough, she would earn an opportunity to take part in the month-long training.
She threw herself into a daily routine. Regular chemotherapy treatments were followed by practice walking with her cane. Her mother walked with her, her sister walked with her, her father walked with her, the neighbors and friends walked with her. Some days she was really tired but she wanted to do the best she could.
She walked in the sun and in the rain. She walked out the door of the hospital each time, practicing straight-line walking. She practiced listening to the way in which traffic moved. She focused on listening. The hard work paid off. She was invited back in July to train to get a guide dog.
“I love this dog,” Melanie said of her new dog, Baza. “I love what he will help me do. I have new dreams in my life and Baza and I will work together to be a perfect team. I know I cannot see but Baza will be my eyes and I will be the one who tells him where to go. I think this is the best thing that could have happened.”
Born in China, Hope was adopted in the U.S. when she was a young child. She recalls her vision being a bit “blurry” but she thought that’s how “everyone saw things.”
The condition worsened, and school became difficult. “I couldn’t read print,” Hope said. “All of a sudden, doing homework took so long. It was so frustrating.”
As her vision deteriorated, Hope became “anti-social,” she said.
“I stayed by myself,” Hope said. “I thought maybe I wasn’t opening my eyes enough. I tried to open my eyes wider. I thought maybe my glasses were dirty. It wasn’t dirt on my glasses. It was scary to be outside. I bumped into things and people. It was strange.”
She underwent three unsuccessful surgeries this spring to correct her worsening vision.
Hope and her family began discussing guide dogs, and at that point, she said the reality of her situation began to set in.
“I guess it was then that I really knew I wasn’t going to see again,” Hope said.
She expected to try to get a guide dog next year, but after a meeting with representatives from MIRA this spring, she was approved to go to Canada to continue training for a dog.
“The next day I cleaned my room and arranged it so I would have room for the guide dog,” Hope said. “I really don’t like to clean my room but this made me really want to do it.”
Hope said having her guide dog, Hibou, will improve her life,
“I won’t bump into people and they won’t stare at me or ignore me. I have my guide dog by my side. He is just for me. I have worked hard with him and him with me. We are a team and things will be better from now on, right Hibou?”
While Melanie and Hope were unsure about getting their guide dogs, 11-year-old Theo knew he wanted a MIRA guide dog the first time he saw one.
Theo lost most of his vision due to a tumor. He does have minimal vision.
“I can see but not much and I can’t see more than about a half a foot in front of me and it is blurry,” Theo said. “ I can know that there is something in front of me but I can’t always tell what it is.”
Theo is a perfectionist, according to most who know him, and he said being in Canada by himself for the past month has been difficult, but he is excited about the future with his guide dog, Tribord.
“Having a guide dog is a lot of work,” Theo said. “I really like to have this work to do. I know I will continue to learn when I get home. It is hard but it is also exciting.”
Once the students return home with their dogs, they will be on their own for a while, and then will receive regular visits from MIRA trainers who will help the students and dogs train in the children’s home areas.
The cost for each child to go through the entire process, from application to evaluation to being placed with a dog, is $60,000. That cost is covered by MIRA Foundation USA.
MIRA guide dogs are a cross between a Bernese Mountain Dog and a Labrador retriever. In Canada, this breed is known as a St. Pierre, named in honor of MIRA International founder Eric St. Pierre. Trained for two years before it ever sees a child, the dogs have a service life of about 7 years.
This is the fifth group of students to receive guide dogs from MIRA Foundation USA. Now, 19 children — 12 girls and seven boys — have received guide dogs from MIRA USA, which is based in Pinehurst. For more, go online, www.mirausa.org/.
Internationally, MIRA has given hundreds of dogs to children around the world.