Meet Guide Dog Class 297
Congratulations, Guide Dog Class #297
Brave and determined students with vision loss arrived at our campus recently to train with the guide dogs that will forever change their lives.
Whether affected by terrible trauma or medical adversities, each of our Class #297 graduates hoped for renewed independence and confidence. They found new strength in the comfort, companionship, and freedom of their extraordinary dogs. Well done!
Please join us in congratulating the newest alumni of Class #297! Meet the class, and meet some inspiring children and their new Kids Companion dogs, too. These four-legged miracle workers are trained to enhance the lives of kids with vision loss, preparing the way for a future guide dog.
Meet the Class
When she was 5, doctors discovered a brain tumor that damaged Savanna Howard’s optic nerve, which affected her vision and required two years of chemotherapy. The ever-resourceful and cheerful Savanna has recently graduated from USF in Tampa with a degree in public health. Now Donnie, a cuddly, affectionate, and playful Lab will help Savanna begin her career. Together, they will take public transportation and navigate unfamiliar places without fear of tripping. “I love Donnie so much already,” she says. “And it’s just going to grow and he’s going to help my life so much!
Gary Ernneus was proud to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminology and a master’s in criminal justice administration. He was a corrections officer until August 28, 2008, the day an inmate threw hot liquid in Gary’s face, burning his corneas and destroying his world. Unable to work or drive, Gary became angry at the world and was ready to end it all. But then he heard David Paterson on TV—New York’s first African American governor and first blind governor—whose career made Gary reconsider everything. He thought, “If I can learn, my life is not over.” Now Gary’s been perfectly paired with Tahoe, the Lab of his dreams. With his trust in Tahoe, Gary now walks with confidence. “When you think that life is over, life has just begun,” he says.
Antonio Bryant lost his sight suddenly and violently on December 12, 2003, when a man walked up to the side of his truck and shot him in the temple at point-blank range. Antonio survived but was immediately plunged into permanent, total darkness. Enter Utah, a smart, curious, and funny yellow Lab who walks by Antonio’s side. Antonio was ready for a new guide to help him be more independent, to travel, go to church, the gym, and possibly enroll in school to get a psychology degree. He really enjoys talking to young adults about making good decisions and following positive role models, something he did not always do himself. “I can be a motivation and an inspiration to them,” Antonio says. “To see that, hey, if I can do it…they can do what they need to do to be successful in life.”
After 37 years as a Realtor, Sharon Underwood finds herself 90% blind and unable to read or drive due to a combination of glaucoma and macular degeneration that has worsened since 2011. After five surgeries, she struggles with no peripheral vision, balance issues, and complete night blindness. In addition to her vision, she has lost confidence and independence. Life has changed thanks to a happy, sweet, and loving yellow Lab named London who immediately calmed all of Sharon’s anxieties. Since the day London bounded into her room and licked her face, Sharon has felt safe, loved, and self-assured. “I think London’s going to be my best friend!” she adds.
At the age of 12, Brooklyn lost all her vision because of Alstrom Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that gradually destroys sight and hearing. She has wanted a guide dog since she was in the fifth grade and heard a handler speak to her school class. Although Brooklyn is now 16 and old enough to apply for a guide, her parents and teachers agreed that it would be better to ease into the responsibilities of a guide dog via a Kids Companion dog first. Enter Sherman, a laid back, happy, and loving goldador with “puppy dog eyes” that melt his new family’s hearts. Sherman helps Brooklyn discover the self-confidence she lacked, plus a feeling of being equal to her siblings. In bonding with her dog and providing for his needs, Brooklyn is more capable and joyful than ever before.
MariAnna was born prematurely at only 25 weeks, suffering complications that caused her to remain in the hospital for a year. One disability is visual impairment, and doctors expect the 18-year-old to become progressively blind as she gets older. MariAnna has always loved animals, and to help prepare her for a future guide dog, a Kids Companion dog became an exciting avenue of hope. Now she has Marvin, a sweet yellow Lab who is cuddly, friendly, and playful. “He’s a happy, energetic little munchkin and we just love him,” says MariAnna’s mom, Maria. “He talks by loving on me,” MariAnna adds. “That’s his language.”
As a tot, Abi experienced low vision, but when she was 7, things took a turn for the worse. After suffering five detached retinas through the year, she was left blind in her left eye and with very little vision in her right. The diagnosis was a rare genetic disorder called Stickler’s Syndrome. Now 12, Abi lives with her grandmother, Vicki. The family learned about the gift of a Kids Companion dog through the Elks, and Abi has now been matched with a sweet, gentle yellow Lab named Lexi. “They are like two little peas in a pod,” Vicki says. “It’s been a definite blessing.” Lexi is a big dog with a big heart for one special little girl.
Cyrus was unable to focus his eyes at three months of age as other babies can. Doctors discovered a rare hereditary disease called FEVR that was destroying his retinas, and after five laser surgeries to stop the progression of the eye disease, Cyrus was legally blind. When his grandmother met one of her dental patients, a Southeastern Guide Dogs puppy raiser, a world of possibilities opened up for Cyrus, now age 4. He was matched with Tai Ku, the perfect Kids Companion dog. In his Zen way, Tai Ku offers Cyrus affection, stability, and relaxation. In return, he gets belly rubs, walks, brushing, feeding, exercise, and tons of attention from the extended family who have embraced their “Samurai dog.”
We’re happy to welcome Class 297 to the Southeastern Guide Dogs family.
To all our newest alumni, well done!