Archives - December, 2014



20 Dec 14

By Arielle Zionts

I am a recent graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, ME. Over 15 weeks, Salt students study and make videos and multimedia. They also each chose to focus in writing, photography, or radio. Rather than focusing on pure reporting, Salt teaches narrative, documentary, and story-based work. Our stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. They have tension or a conflict that is either resolved or being addressed.

I was struggling to find a topic for my second radio story so I googled “miniature guide horse in Maine.” I thought it would be interesting to do a story about someone who uses a guide horse instead of a guide dog. However, Randy’s website appeared in my search results and I began to read about Randy, his dogs, and their adventures. I knew there was a story in Randy and his dogs but I wasn’t sure what it was at first. I was afraid of making a cliché story: man has disability, man pushes limits of disability, listeners feel inspired.

After conversing via e-mail, phone, and text message, conducting two formal interviews, and going on a walk and hike with Randy and Autumn, I knew my story. I was struck by the strength and, to be honest, the adorableness of Randy and Autumn’s relationship. I was also moved when he talked about his former dogs, Quinn and Ostend. My radio story was going to be a relationship story.

In “Guiding Eyes,” Randy’s long-term journey of bonding and training with Autumn is explored and represented through a hiking scene on Pack Monadnock. The story also focuses on the cycle Randy goes through with his guide dogs: getting paired up with a dog, training, working together, death, and repeat.

At Salt’s show opening last week, over 50 people were moved to the point of laughter and tears as they listened to Randy speak about his relationships with his dogs.

To listen to my other radio stories, click here.
To learn more about the Salt Institute, click here.

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17 Dec 14

By Randy Pierce

Jose and Randy epitomize determination as they begin the final strides to the finish line.

Jose and Randy epitomize determination as they begin the final strides to the finish line.

When Ryan Ortiz, Assistant Executive Director for the USABA called us to the podium during the award ceremony, I was both surprised and delighted to think I’d somehow managed to place third in this National Marathon Championship. My excellent friend, Jose Acevedo, had guided me for the entirety of our 26.2 mile race.

It was just the second successful marathon for both of us and his first with the very significant additional work of Guiding. We had set a fairly modest goal for many reasons including my three-week battle with pneumonia which had grossly impacted my final weeks of training. I was proud of us and marveling in the teamwork which led to this momentous occasion, one which proved all the more powerful as we learned we had actually earned first place in the B1 division which is “total blindness to effectively no usable vision.” How did this happen?

For me, it started with my inspiration and decision to run the Boston Marathon as I detailed in one of my favorite blogs ever: “Qualifying for Quinn.” My very first marathon was a “success” on many levels though it was not indicative of the better approach I hoped to take for full marathon success.

I understood so little about long distance running but I was determined to listen and learn from the many resources available online and in the experienced runners such as my friend and coach Greg Hallerman. It was overwhelming how many people shared their knowledge, experience and perhaps most importantly running time as Guides to enable me to run train. Thus, it was all the more disappointing to me when my next attempt at a marathon–which had such better preparation and results, right up until my dropping out at mile 23.5 as detailed in my comment to the blog: “Bay State and Beyond.”

The California Marathon opportunity was made possible because the tireless drive of Richard Hunter and support of USABA, CIM and many others enables the large gathering of blind athletes to do so much more than just compete in this event. I didn’t expect or necessarily intend to personally compete as I explain in my pre-race blog for the event “CIM: Coast to Coast Blind Runners Share a Common Vision”

Tracy, Jose, and Randy pose before the race.

Tracy, Jose, and Randy pose before the race.

Tracy, Jose, and I paused and posed in Folsom, CA before sunrise on the morning of the race. We were excited, apprehensive, and slowly building towards the mental focus and physical readiness for the endurance experience ahead. Jose had mostly trained in Seattle for the sole purpose of guiding me at this event and I had joined him via phone for a few of his training runs but we’d only had two shorter runs together to practice the guide work and never in crowded race conditions. We felt confident that at a gentler 9:30-minute mile pace, we would support and sustain through the entire journey. While official time was “gun time” we didn’t press to the front as we knew our bibs would capture chip time and that was good enough for our goals. Thus thousands of runners were across ahead of us as we began.

The first stretch involved my needing to be tight behind him as we managed larger groups of people and brought our communication comfort up to speed. These early miles were crowd-restricted to a slower pace. Just over a mile, I was able to stride to the opposite side of the cane from him and allow my legs to stretch a little more. We picked up the pace comfortably and steadily began the work of passing individuals and groups. The first  pace  pack of 4:40 (four hours and forty minutes) took some time to manage with patience and talking to our fellow runners in order to find the space to work through together. By mile 9 we had passed the pace group for 4:25 and 4:10 and were running well together at above our intended pace. Shortly afterwards the first bathroom pit stop seemed sufficiently uncrowded to give Jose his opportunity, but the line was slow moving and at least six minutes were lost to the needed stop.

Back on the course, we had to navigate once again through a pace group cluster but felt strong as we approached the alleged significant uphill of the course. Reaching the halfway mark without noting a significant hill, we understood we were running strong and ready for the course which would roll and be flat for the duration of our trek. Race supporters played music, held humorous and inspirational signs, or simply cheered encouragingly throughout the many miles.

Water stops and nutrition moments were in great supply by the race and we availed ourselves of them appropriately. This required a return to tight behind and a slow to a walk. This cost us a little time but gave a little rest and kept us well hydrated and supplied with the energy we needed. Thus at mile 20 when we ran with a friend and peer, Kyle Robidoux, there was still good strength in both of us.

Our pace did slow for miles 20-24 where my first battle with a little leg pain arrived. My right leg, lower quad was cramping and spasming a little. I gave it two stretch breaks over the final 2.2 miles and used it as a little bit of a mental excuse to take an additional water stop I might otherwise have avoided. These final two miles were not my strongest and it is where I had to dig deeper for the mental and physical resolve. This made Jose stronger as he rose fantastically to the occasion of offering more support.

Crowds of supporters made communication more challenging and narrowed the course so tight behind was common as we found space to continue passing people on the stretch run. Our final turn was captured in the above photo and showed the determination and focus both of us needed to reach the finish as strong as we did. At his call, I slid up the cane and we clasped hands over our heads in celebration as we strode across the finish line. It was jubilant and emotional in ways endurance events bring forth. The post-race celebratory feelings and race support buoyed our proud recollections as we slowly eased our bodies towards the well deserved rest.

Randy, Jose, and Tracy triumphantly sport Santa hats at the finish line.

Randy, Jose, and Tracy triumphantly sport Santa hats at the finish line.

The atmosphere was electric and we waited in the USABA tent for Tracy to finish her first marathon as well. Celebrating our own success is a great feeling and yet the sharing of it is so much more powerful to me. Not just the sharing of pride in Jose and our teamwork, but the sharing of accomplishment and joy with all the runners as they crossed the finish line. Kristen, Jose, and I cheered as Tracy crossed with a huge smile overpowering the also well earned exhaustion. That moment carried as much powerful emotion as our own success.

The work on race day is certainly tremendous as is the reward. The hardest work lies in all the preparation. I ran more than 1200 miles of training which creates wear and tear on the body and considerable amounts of time. The dedication and consequences of the commitment are significant. I have the required challenge and benefit of running as a team most of the time. This certainly enhances the motivation and the enjoyment significantly.

My initial goal of the Boston Marathon is still ahead and my determination is beyond unwavering as it’s grown steadily. I understand reasonably well the sacrifice and efforts involved and even now have begun forming the plan for training ahead. The entirely unexpected and surreal additional reward is that now I hold a title beyond my expectations. I am the B1 National Champion of the marathon!

The reality is there are many fantastic runners, sighted and blind, of all levels, who may better my time. I hope to be one of those as I strive to improve and grow my own running ability. What I know is that in reaching for goals, in working towards our dreams and perhaps just in the conceiving of such, we are already winners. That is what makes it so easy for me to celebrate all of the glorious moments from our entire California trip even as I begin using my sightless eyes to look forward with confidence I will indeed Achieve a Vision Beyond my Sight. I always love the last experience and hope to always use those prior moments as a springboard to begin the next opportunities.

Better than all of those experiences, however,  are the many people with whom I hope to share the experience. Thank you to so many folks for letting me share their experience and for choosing to share in some of mine as well – this time particularly to Jose Acevedo my friend and teammate in this national championship! Congratulations on all the hard work and well earned rewards!

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13 Dec 14

By Jennifer Streck

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been a part of 2020 Vision Quest since its inception when Randy asked me over for lunch to pick my brain about an idea. From day one, I loved the concept and goals and hold immense admiration for Randy’s courage and drive.

The most awesome part of what he does, in my not-so-humble opinion, is his school outreach. I have been there when Randy has spoken to the elementary classes that my own children were in and left each time inspired and feeling better about the world we live in.

Randy is sitting with the team of 6th – 8th graders on Team Eyrie. Autumn is at his feet.

Randy, Autumn and the 2014 Elm Street Eyrie FLL Team.

Most recently, I escorted Randy to Elm Street Middle School where the Elm Street Eyrie were prepping for their inaugural First LEGO® League (FLL) competition. (Full disclosure: my daughter Bella is part of this team and asked to have Randy come in and speak to the group and help them with their project. As Randy saw Bella take her first steps before I, her mother, did, he owes me for life and is at my beck and call for all appearances.)

Now a little about FLL – it’s not just about the LEGO® robots. As part of these competitions, the teams must also present a project around the theme of the year and work within the core values of FLL – teamwork, cooperation, discovery, mentorship and fun. This time around they needed to address how to assist in learning. It’s a pretty broad category and the kids decided that they wanted to figure out how to help someone who is visually impaired. Randy was a tremendous resource to the kids as he told them the facts of his background and shared with them all of the different ways he learns about the world around him from directions, his environment, the weather, communication tools, computers and everything else.

The team shows him some of the obstacle courses on the FLL table. Randy is using his hands to feel the obstacles as the kids describe what each does and how they program the robot to do the tasks.

Team Eyrie demonstrates the FLL Obstacle Course table to Randy.

The kids were attentive and absorbed a lot. They even got to show Randy the obstacle course table that they used to program the LEGO® robot. As they spoke with Randy, I noticed a change in how they communicated. At first they all spoke at once and their enthusiasm was overwhelming. But then they settled and learned how to communicate in a way that was detailed, thoughtful, and expressive. In the age of “LOL,” “OMG,” and “BRB” this is not as easy as you would think. Just like the robots, these kids were programming their brains and were themselves learning.

As I sat there listening, two themes resonated.

First: Communication is key. Whether it’s explaining where a door is or expressing your point of view – the world stops without key human communication. And I am not talking about Facebook posts, Tweets, texting, or even this blog. Honest-to-goodness human interaction with your voice – words and tone – opens doors to so much for so many.

Second: Don’t be afraid. Be brave. Take chances. It’s harder than it sounds, but if we all try to do #1 to our best ability, there is no fear. Such simple concepts that we all, young and old alike, should keep closer in our playbooks of life. Oh what we could be and what we could give to the world if every day we woke up and took on each day with an open mind, brave heart and emotive spirit. Am I making more of it than it is? Sure. Maybe. I am known to dig a little deeper than necessary at times. But I also know that at the end of the session one of those young men came up to Randy and thanked him because before Randy spoke with them and told them his tale he was afraid around the blind. Now he knew he did not have to be and just needed to communicate in a new way.

The team shows him some of the obstacle courses on the FLL table. Randy is using his hands to feel the obstacles as the kids describe what each does and how they program the robot to do the tasks.

Team Eyrie demonstrates the FLL Obstacle Course table to Randy.

You’re likely asking yourself, “So how did the kids do? Did they win?” The kids went to their first competition on November 22nd. They did a tremendous job all around. Their project focused on the creation of a new app for the visually impaired to lend assistance crossing roads and intersections.

The app relies on the phone’s GPS (which Randy relies on) and BlueTooth technology that would communicate with the stoplights at intersections. When connected a signal would be omitted letting the pedestrian know it was safe to cross and at which street he/she is crossing. They even wrote a letter to the mayor of Nashua explaining their proposal and making themselves available for more questions and further research. (I would never have thought of an app, but that’s why I am raising digital natives – to change the world.)

And in addition, their robot came in 4th out of 16 teams in the Robot Obstacle Course Tournament! (I almost started the wave in the stands – it was so exciting!).

In the end, Team Elm Street Eyrie did not place overall and are not moving onto the States competition but this team pulled together in short order and delivered something that they should be very proud of. They worked as a team, communicated their goals, contributed their best and took some chances. That’s a check in the “win” column no matter what.

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6 Dec 14

By Randy Pierce

Randy and Autumn trek through the airport on their way to their first plane trip together!

Randy and Autumn trek through the airport on their way to their first plane trip together!

As Autumn and I stroll through the airport and onto the plane, and then settle into a seat with her curled up against my feet on the floor in front of me, it may seem a simple process. For Guiding Eyes Autumn, December 4 was her debut flight and we thought we’d enlighten the many who have asked how the entire process works. Like most things, it begins with planning and preparation.

Thankfully the A.D.A. (American’s With Disabilities Act) ensures she is welcome to accompany me on a flight and not require any additional cost or ticket purchase. Guiding Eyes for the Blind has ensured that we as a team are trained for our part in the responsibilities involved. She has proven able to exceed the behavioral needs despite all the possible surprises which might arrive on a flight. I’ve been trained to ensure the ability to keep her within those expectations and properly educate the people around us through the process.

Depending on the length of flight and possibilities for relieving Autumn, I’ve adjusted her schedule of food and water to ensure she can fly comfortably without risk of an accident nor of insufficient nutrition and hydration. This is more difficult with the extended security approaches, although many airports have very kindly provided relieving stations beyond security. I have food ready for her immediately after we finish our flights.

Alerting the airlines 24 hours in advance is a courtesy which can also allow me to request bulkhead seating for us. On many airlines this has just a little more leg room which aids my 6’4” frame and her 65 lbs of Labrador  to cohabitate a little better. This time we are traveling with Tracy and may negotiate a little of her leg room too.

Autumn settles in at Randy's feet, ready for the long flight.

Autumn settles in at Randy’s feet, ready for the long flight.

On the day of the flight, we’ll arrive a little early and ensure her a final relief before braving the security process. They will usually expedite us through security and thereby ensure a Dog Guide trained scanner as well. She sits in a stay while I walk through the scanner (hopefully successfully though the blind guy not touching the sides is another interesting challenge). Then while they watch I call her through and typically the harness will set off the alarm so they’ll pat her down. Often this is a treat for Autumn and the scanning agent. We then resume to the gate and request early boarding to ease things a little more. Sitting in plain view of the gate reminds them we are there to help finalize that early boarding.

Sometimes a little interaction with a fellow flyer in our row helps build comforts though there’s an occasional flight with someone unhappy to share the row with a dog guide. The airline may move that person if it’s possible and most of the time soulful puppy eyes win over travelers.

We are allowed in any seat not designated as the emergency exit row. The airline may invite us to move for better comfort and if safety is involved they may direct us to do so, but in my 14 years of flying with a Dog Guide this has never yet happened. A blanket and chew toy complete the options for her comfort especially on her first flight. Eventually she may prove to be as stoic and relaxed as the Mighty Quinn or Ostend before her, but setting the trip for success in advance is key. The final part of that is to ensure her dog food made the trip as it may be harder to find across the country. Just to be safe, a full day’s supply is in my carry-on and her collapsible bowl is on her harness.

Now we are off and ready for new adventures together!

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