Congratulations Class #287
Pictured left to right: Roland Brault and guide Gene, Deborah Hall and guide Nina, trainer Chrissy Sanford, Brian Giles and guide Lucy, trainer Christine Fulton, Brian Howerton and guide Markel, Phillip Smith and guide Poindexter, Kurt McLaughlin and guide Rusty, trainer Jonathan Bjaland, Jeffery Lowery and guide Quincy, trainer Alice Ryskamp, Nola Timmins and guide Brizzy, and Gabrielle Jordan and guide Mere Bear.
The new guide dog teams of Class #287 are ready for adventure! Each one of the graduates bonded not only with their new guide dogs but also with their classmates, encouraging each other along the way. As Class #287 graduates today, we congratulate them on their commitment and hard work, and we welcome them to the Southeastern Guide Dogs family.
Brian Howerton lost his vision in infancy from retinopathy of prematurity. He now serves as a worship pastor to a 600-member church, and he values his independence. Brian got a taste of that independence with his first guide dog, Julia. After she retired, he wanted to keep his hard-earned freedom, and now he’s been matched with a laid-back, mellow guide dog named Markel. His dog will help him on and off the stage on Sundays as well as to family activities. Brian and Markel have plenty of adventures ahead!
“I’m a Marine, and I don’t give up,” says Vietnam veteran Roland Brault, his hand resting on his new guide dog, Gene. Optic atrophy cuts off the blood flow and signals from Roland’s eyes to his brain, leaving him blind in the left eye and with very little vision in the right. Roland has relied on his resilience a lot lately, and with Gene by his side, he faces the future with more confidence. Brian says Gene is the perfect match for him, and he looks forward to putting to work everything he’s learned with Gene.
When she was 33, Debbie Hall was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, but she kept her driver’s license until she was 42. “That’s when the road disappeared,” she explains. She left behind her career as a hairdresser and cashier, and now her vision has deteriorated to near-total blindness. But thanks to her first guide dog, Speeler, Debbie never stopped heading out the door for swimming, shopping, visiting grandchildren, or dining out with friends. When Speeler retired, Debbie missed her usual freedom. Now she has her new guide dog, Nina, by her side, and she’s ready to resume her active life.
Kurt McLaughlin’s vision loss stems from birth when a forceps delivery caused cerebral palsy and damaged his vision. But Kurt was born for adventure! He loves horseback riding, the thrill of rollercoasters, scuba diving, and traveling, and he’s never let lack of vision stop him. He knew that a guide dog would take his independent spirit and raise it to new levels. Now Kurt is learning the art of traveling independently with a guide dog by his side, and he’s found the perfect match in a happy, playful Lab named Rusty. The team has worked hard and built a strong bond together, and Kurt is excited for their new adventures.
Nola Timmins truly believes her senior quote, which she attributes to one of her heroes, high-wire daredevil Nik Wallenda: “The sky isn’t the limit, it’s your playground.” She’s been flying around on aerial silks and Lyra (think Cirque du Soleil) for the past five years, and she loves it. Nola, 18, was diagnosed at age 5 with optic nerve atrophy and is now legally blind. She participated in our first teen Guide Dog Camp in 2019, and now she’s been matched with her first guide dog, Brizzy. Next up for this young team is graduating high school, a trip to Europe, and starting college where Nola will study architecture.
Jeff Lowery’s work as a behavioral analyst often required him to analyze the mental health of convicted criminals. After experiencing numerous attacks by inmates, he now lives with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. One of those attacks resulted in post-concussive syndrome and vision loss. He learned about the Florida Division of Blind Services, where he completed orientation and mobility training in the hopes of one day having a guide dog. That day has come, and now Jeff navigates with a loving and watchful guide named Quincy, who is already changing his life.
Brian Giles was born with retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disease common in premature infants and leading to blindness. Brian came to Southeastern Guide Dogs years ago for his first guide dog. After three subsequent guide dogs from other schools, he returned to us for his fifth guide dog, Lucy. After being without a guide dog for two years, Brian looks forward to traveling independently with Lucy, including taking the train to a mall in Salt Lake City. “I navigate better with a guide dog,” he says. “I’m excited to geek out at the mall’s Apple store.”
Gabby Jordan noticed her vision changing while she was a college intern working stateside for the Peace Corps. One day she couldn’t see the computer well, and her physician told her bluntly, “You’re going blind.” She pushed forward and earned her degree in economics, eventually becoming a regional asset manager for a real estate developer and learned to use a cane. Even with a cane, the fear of tripping and falling gave her anxiety. But now she walks confidently with Mere Bear, her lovable and active new guide dog, who is helping her create a new life for herself.
Phillip Smith’s wife, Judy, was having lunch in Savannah with a friend when they ran into a group of Southeastern Guide Dog puppy raisers. The puppy raisers offered a business card, and Judy encouraged Phillip to look into our guide dog program. Born deaf, Phillip was diagnosed at age 21 with Usher Syndrome, which causes him to have tunnel vision and night blindness. He stopped driving, learned braille, and took orientation and mobility training to learn how to use a white cane. Now Phillip has been matched with his first guide dog; a beautiful, laid-back Lab named Poindexter, who will be traveling extensively with Phillip and his wife.
(Not pictured) Alyssa Bushnell sums up in one word why she wanted a guide dog: independence. At 18, she is an active high school senior involved in a dance troupe, is in her 12th year of competitive Special Olympics Cheer, and is preparing for college in the fall. Born with vision loss, Alyssa lives with microphthalmia coloboma. Legally blind, she learned braille in third grade and used a cane to navigate. The cane, she says, was an annoyance that stabbed her and pulled her arm back while navigating. But not any longer, because Alyssa now walks with her first guide dog, Clyde. “He’s done more than a cane can do,” she says. “He’s given me independence, and he can be a friend when I need one.”
Once again, congratulations to the new teams of Class #287 for your accomplishments!