Meet Guide Dog Class #301

Congratulations, Guide Dog Class #301

We’re happy to welcome our newest guide dog alumni and offer hearty congratulations for the life-transforming gifts of freedom, independence, and adventure they now enjoy with their extraordinary dogs.

Seven students recently came together from Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, and South Carolina to be paired with their guides, two as returning alumni receiving successor dogs and five as first-time handlers. They bonded with each other and their new furry best friends, sharing diverse backgrounds and circumstances but one singular goal: living their best lives.

We’re proud to say, “Hip, Hip Hooray!” to Class #301.

Meet the Class 

Cassie smiles and pets her yellow lab guide dogCassie Erps’ first guide dog, Bentley, passed away right before the pandemic. She’ll never forget him, but now has a new best friend in Clarence. At age 20, Cassie lost her vision from the effects of a brain tumor. After recovering from surgery, she struggled to adapt to life without vision and found independence with a guide dog leading the way. Now, Clarence makes her feel whole again. “It makes me so happy, to get up with Clarence,” Cassie says. “It’s like he’s saying, “Let’s go conquer the world together!


A young girl hold her black labs head and smiles down at himAnnabel knew she wanted a guide dog since elementary school. Born with a rare, inherited eye condition called achromatopsia, she is blinded by bright lights, has no color vision, and everything more than a few feet away becomes blurry shapes and outlines. She also has nystagmus, or repetitive, uncontrolled eye movements. Annabel was one of the first teens to attend our Guide Dog Camp two years ago, and immediately applied for a dog of her own. Now she’s been matched with Barry, who she calls “my new, good pair of eyes”. Together, Annabel and Barry will do everyday things such as shopping and hiking. Here’s to their bright and dynamic future!


A women gives a yellow lab a high fiveAmblyopia or “lazy eye” gave Cheri Sytsma abnormal vision development at birth, leading to double vision, dizziness, headaches, and depth perception problems. She struggled with reading and overcompensated for her poor peripheral vision by favoring her left eye. Over time, the symptoms worsened and she stopped driving, left her job as a massage therapist, and began falling more frequently. It became harder to get out and about and enjoy life, and she felt too dependent on other people. Cheri applied for a guide dog, and now she’s been matched with a lovely yellow Lab named Hero. “She is my hero,” says Cheri. “I have been looking forward to this time for nearly two years now, and it’s finally here!” 


A yellow lab looks off into the distance as his handle sits behind him smilingWhen he was only 11, Ethan Dixon developed a tumor on his optic nerve and pituitary gland that had to be surgically removed. Instead of improving his vision, however, the procedure resulted in total blindness. Now a junior in high school, Ethan has been hoping for a new source of independence. Enter Buster, a playful and friendly yellow goldador who quickly won Ethan’s heart and will help him safely navigate his senior year. They will take walks in the park and go fishing together at a lake near Ethan’s home. Later, if he decides to pursue a degree in massage therapy or physical therapy, Buster will be right there with him.


A man sits holding walking cane in one hand and pets his guide dog with his otherAfter serving three years in the Marines and seven in the Army with deployments throughout the world, Michael Facyson left the military in 1986. He earned an MBA and enjoyed a career at Citi Bank, until suffering two major strokes that left him walking with a limp and a cane. He later discovered that his eyesight was also failing rapidly, and after a third, undetected stroke, vision loss forced him to give up driving, his career, and his self-reliance. Today Michael serves as a minister and enjoys singing and socializing. Living in a hi-rise building, he walks everywhere. Now he has help from his smart and skilled guide dog Tommy to get out even more. Tommy’s emotional support, love, and guidance give Michael a greater sense of independence and companionship.


A man looks down lovingly at his yellow lab guide dogWhen part-time Elvis impersonator Bruce Locke serenades his new yellow Lab guide dog Murphy, he sings: “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog!” In fact, Murphy is much more! “Let me just say, she’s amazing,” Bruce says with emotion. Glaucoma and macular degeneration have left Bruce blind in his left eye and with only five percent vision in the right. Bruce is an interior designer and a self-taught fine portrait artist, but when he’s on stage, he transforms into Elvis. Murphy is transforming Bruce’s future, becoming his eyes and giving him a vision of renewed independence and confidence.


A guide dog stands out in front of it's handler as he pets her backJohn Knope was born with no light perception in his right eye and later lost vision in his left eye from undiagnosed glaucoma. Navigating with a cane brought extra challenges because scoliosis and spinal stenosis cause him to drift to the right. “Without my guide dog, it takes way too long to get places,” John explains. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Clemson University, his first guide, Frenchy, helped John navigate his job teaching computer skills to people with vision loss. After Frenchy retired, he has found independence again with his new guide, energetic Indy, a sweet yellow Lab. “With Indy, I’ll be able to move more fluidly again,” he says.

Read more details about the wonderful people and dogs of Class #301 in the commencement program below:

Click here for accessible PDF for the visually impaired.

Posted on May 28, 2021 | Category: Blog, Graduates