Meet Class #281

Class 281 poses on a side walk with their guide dogs.

Pictured left to right: Mitchell Bridwell and guide Magic, Valerie and guide Micky, trainer Katie Perez, DeeDee Haddad and guide Tom Don, trainer Christine Fulton, TJ Meloy and guide Dusty, Arlene Gallentine and guide Ryder, trainer Chrissy Sanford, Pat Rodrigues and guide Harry, trainer Alice Ryskamp, Wayne Dawkins and guide Chappy, Garrett Horst and guide Kent, Nathaniel Lopez and guide Gideon, trainer Jonathan Bjaland, Jon Minnick and guide A.J.

Congratulations Class #281!

Today we applaud the accomplishments of Class #281 as they graduate. We celebrate each team’s well-deserved success and share in their excitement for the adventures that await.  This is only the beginning of their journey together, and we are happy to welcome Class #281 to the Southeastern Guide Dogs family.

Meet the class!

Eighteen-year-old Mitchell Bridwell has always been good at figuring things out and finding success. Blind from birth due to a congenital condition that caused scar tissue to form in the blood vessels of his eyes, he became a five-time winner at the National Braille Challenge, placing first for the past three years. And now Mitchell is blown away by his first guide dog, a social and playful black Lab named Magic. Magic will help Mitchell navigate the Purdue campus this fall.

Valerie, who lives without light perception and peripheral vision, is an unstoppable, bright and joyful 15-year-old with a talent for hula hooping and playing the ukulele. Since she was just 10 months old, she survived a persistent brain tumor, years of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. While at our Guide Dog Camp, Valerie and her family discovered the difference a well-trained canine makes. And now she has Micky, a yellow Lab with just the right personality who will guide her safely.

Losing her vision at age 16 from Stargardt disease meant that DeeDee Haddad faced many challenges. A third-generation St. Petersburg native, DeeDee once adopted one of our dogs. That’s why she turned to us for her first guide, Wrigley, and now her second guide, Tom Don. This beautiful, energetic black Labrador makes DeeDee smile and is providing her with independence.

Born prematurely, TJ Meloy’s detached retinas from retinopathy of prematurity caused his blindness. TJ practices law as a criminal defense and civil law attorney, and he loves playing music for his church’s praise and worship team. He especially likes to play the piano, drums, and guitar. “The piano and the drums aren’t very portable,” he says, laughing. “So, I dabble in guitar playing.” And now TJ has something else that’s portable by his side—his third guide dog, Dusty, an active and confident goldador who gives TJ a partnership and a sense of freedom.

2017 was not the best year for Arlene Gallentine. Since birth, this courageous and independent woman had been blind in her right eye, but in 2017, a macular hole appeared in her left. A separated retina and surgical scar tissue damaged her remaining vision. Now, because of a friendly and smart yellow Lab named Ryder, 2019 is about to get better. Ryder will enjoy Arlene’s three weekly trips to the Lighthouse for the Blind where she sings with a group called the Singalings.

A retired LPN, Pat Rodrigues, who lost her vision after side effects from the shingles vaccine, wanted to wait until she had the confidence to train with a guide dog. That time has come, and Pat’s confidence is growing with Harry, a sweet and happy yellow Lab. With Harry by her side, Pat can’t wait to rejoin her group of mall-walkers and start walking nearly a mile a day again.

Five years ago, Wayne Dawkins was overseeing a construction job site when his vision suddenly clouded. A mini-stroke damaged his retinas, and despite multiple surgeries, doctors were unable to save his eyesight. Matched with Chappy, an energetic, observant yellow Lab, Wayne now enjoys walking fast, leaving the tap-tap-tapping of his cane behind. At home in Miami, Wayne works as a mentor to boys in the juvenile justice system. With Chappy by his side, he’ll be able to show the boys how to keep moving forward even when life is challenging.

Garrett Horst will never forget the day his world went completely dark. He was 18 when high blood pressure, stemming from childhood kidney failure, caused swelling of his optic nerve, which then destroyed his vision. Undeterred, Garrett will start college this fall at Central Penn College with Kent, a calm, easygoing yellow Lab and his first guide dog.

Nathaniel Lopez started losing his vision in his early teens from a neurological disorder, and now he is legally blind. In 2020, Nathaniel will graduate with his A.A. degree from Hillsborough Community College and will go on to attend the University of South Florida. He hopes to become a therapist for children and teens living with disabilities. To help him reach his goals, Nathaniel has been matched with Gideon, a happy-go-lucky brindle Lab and his first guide dog. Nathaniel and Gideon are ready to enjoy new adventures together.

“It’s been hard, living in a world that’s not blind-friendly,” says Jonathan Minnick about life after a twice-reoccurring brain tumor put pressure on his optic nerve, causing near-total vision loss. Enter a calm, affectionate “good boy” named A.J., Jonathan’s first guide dog, and life is about to get a little less hard. This sweet yellow Lab will accompany him to work each day at LC Industries, where Jonathan supports a production line in the flatware department.

Class #281, we congratulate each of you on all of your hard work and welcome you to the Southeastern Guide Dogs family!

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Did you miss our live stream of today’s graduation? Don’t worry! You can still view it here. Congratulations Class #281 on your hard work and we can’t wait to see your progress.

Posted on August 15, 2019 | Category: Blog, Graduates, Our Dogs