For blind children like Kayla Cole and Kate Antolak, school can be challenging because the white cane so necessary for them to navigate can be an impediment.
“People stay away from a white cane,” Kayla said. “They don’t come up and talk with you. Maybe they are afraid of being hit by the came, but mostly I think they don’t know what to say to a blind person.”
“My major challenge is the cane,” Kate said. “That horrible white cane. It is almost like when they had leper colonies or when people wore dots on their head for persecution. It’s just awful.”
But thanks to a local organization and plenty of hard work, determination and dedication on their own part, Kayla and Kate will both start school this year with a guide dog, a major upgrade from that white cane.
The dogs are provided through MIRA, a nonprofit organization that provides guide dogs for children ages 11 to 17. It has multiple branches, including MIRA USA, located in Aberdeen, and is the only organization in the United States to provide guide dogs for children.
For more information about MIRA USA, click here.
Kayla, of Badin, N.C., and Kate, of St. Augustine, Fla., are two of four girls who are the latest U.S. recipients of MIRA guide dogs. They earned their dogs following a monthlong training session at MIRA facilities in Canada.
The other girls who received dogs are Ahbee Orton, of Florence, Ala., and Alexys “Lexi” Smith, of Cranberry Township, Pa.
The girls are the fourth group of U.S. children to receive their guide dogs following the training. In all, 16 children — 10 girls and six boys — have received guide dogs through MIRA USA.
All four girls are grateful for the opportunity that the guide dogs will provide.
“I think that realizing I would be blind forever is a challenge,” Lexi said. “I hoped I could have another set of eyes to help me. A dog could do that, but until I found MIRA USA, I was told I was too young. Do you know how disappointing this is? How discouraging?”
Those who have received MIRA guide dogs, including MIRA USA founder Bob Baillie, call the dogs a “social bridge” that breaks down barriers and provides a key to social interaction.
The girls agree.
“People will ask me about my guide dog. They will ask me how I got him and what I had to learn. No one ever asked me where I got my cane,” Ahbee said.
Roy Ehrlich, a MIRA USA board member, summed it up simply: “The dog is an attraction, the cane is a barrier.”
Since the end of July, the girls have returned home and been visited by the MIRA trainers. The trainers will help the girls and the dogs learn new routes and commands that will help them navigate their hometowns. There will be a particular focus on places like schools, malls, grocery stores and neighborhoods that the children visit regularly.
The visits will be the first of several ongoing evaluations over the first few months.
It is the continuation of a long journey that began nearly a year ago. It was then that the girls were among dozens who filled out an application for a guide dog through MIRA USA. Following an intensive review that included interviews, inspection of doctor records and other assessments, a handful of students were invited to Moore County to take part in an on-site evaluation over several days.
At the end of the evaluation, five students were selected to advance to the more intensive training in Canada, with the ultimate goal of earning a guide dog.
Throughout the process, students can be removed if the expert evaluators deem they are not yet ready for an animal. If dropped from the program, the students are given skills to work on and given another chance in the future, said Dr. Marijanet Doonan, president of MIRA USA.
The training in Canada has been described by some as similar to a military boot camp. Activities are regimented, and the students have to learn to take care of themselves as well as their dogs. That can be a tough transition because at home, the students oftentimes are helped by their parents or siblings.
Aside from all the training they did with the dogs, the girls said one of the toughest parts of being in Canada was when the trainers selected the dogs for the children. The selection was based on the child’s personality, lifestyle, their gait, and their size and strength.
“The trainers brought out the dogs one at a time, and what a feeling,” Lexi said. “The only other time I had been at the other end of the harness with a dog was at evaluation weekend (in March). I felt so strong.”
Said Kayla: “They brought my dog to me and said, ‘Try this one.’ I think I was shaking when I took the harness and the leash in my hand.”
The guide dogs MIRA provides 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 founder Eric St. Pierre.
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.
Internationally, MIRA has given hundreds of dogs to children around the world.
In March, St. Pierre stressed that the most important factor in placing a guide dog with a child is safety. At that time he made no promises to the five girls selected to go to Canada, saying that if there were any safety concerns he would not allow a dog to be placed with a child.
“We want you to come back with a dog, but we also want you to come back safe,” St. Pierre said in March.
Doonan said the guide dogs do a world of good for the confidence of children who receive them.
“It is a life-changing event for the children,” Doonan said. "Every day they stand up a little straighter, they smile more, and they just get more confident. There is no fear.
“With the dogs they can go out into the community and not only be part of it, but also do things for it.”
Kate said having a dog is a huge change for the better.
“It isn’t easy, it is really tough, but it is a great feeling to be able to hold my head up and know this dog is with me,” she said.
For Lexi, getting a guide dog is a nearly indescribable feeling.
“I can’t quite tell you what it’s like to walk tall behind my guide dog,” she said. “It is the first time I felt I could really take a walk down the street like everyone else, not really being afraid of falling or bumping into things. Not hearing that horrid tap of my cane. I could relax, I could smell the air. It was astounding.”
And as for that first day of school?
“Oh, gosh, I won’t just be ‘that blind girl,’” Kate said. “I will be that girl with the guide dog and everyone will know I have learned so much in how to handle this dog.
“That will be special.”