While presenting at the Bow Elementary School on September 11, I will deliver our very first copy of this fantastic new poster to the NH school systems. We continue to be incredibly proud of the educational outreach provided by 2020 Vision Quest and now believe it’s become just a little better as we leave behind a physical reminder of our positive message.
For many, our signature image is this fantastic winter hiking photo taken by Justin Sylvester in January 2012. Recently Greg Neault helped coordinate the entire 2020 Vision Quest team in line with his digital creativity to develop this inspirational poster. I believed it would make a tremendously positive impact upon students and staff alike at the many schools we visit and reached out to collaborate with the Bank of New Hampshire. They were enthusiastic to support the positive community benefit and now the finished product has arrived! We are proud of the message shared in the poster and think it will present a potent reminder of many of the messages we share in our educational presentations to schools throughout New Hampshire and beyond.
How can you get a poster? The easiest way is to schedule us to visit your classroom or school. We are proud to be called back repeatedly to visit schools who wish to ensure each year’s students have the opportunity to hear our messages. Whether we’ve been to visit you before or this is our first visit, it’s a simple process. Refer us to the teacher, administrator, or even PTA member responsible for coordinating presentations by sending them the link to our “For Educators.” page. From there, we provide the information and contact information to schedule us for a visit.
We can and will schedule as far in advance as you require, and in fact, as we become steadily more popular, there is considerable advantage to scheduling early. But we’ll always make every attempt to honor every request for a presentation. More than 60,000 students have experienced the benefit and now through our poster collaboration team we think there’s just one more good reason to schedule with us now!
Happy New Year to the staff, friends and supporters of 2020 Vision Quest! I have been asked by Randy to be a “guest blogger” in order to introduce my organization to you, and to give Randy a vacation from blogging!
We are BluePath Service Dogs, a new non-profit that trains service dogs for families with children with autism. The demand for our services is enormous, as 1 out of every 68 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. We raise and train our extraordinary dogs to ultimately match them with a child and his or her family.
Autism service dogs provide a number of services to a family. First and foremost, our dogs are trained to keep a child on the spectrum safe. Children on the spectrum often show “bolting” behaviors, where they suddenly run away from family, placing them in potentially life threatening situations. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children with autism under the age of 10.
BluePath dogs keep children safe via a specially designed vest, which is tethered to a belt around the child’s waist. Should the child attempt to bolt, the dog will lie down and anchor the child in place. BluePath dogs also provide companionship to a child that has difficulty communicating with other children and can even stimulate social interaction with other children and adults.
Many families with a child on the spectrum curtail trips, vacations, and activities outside the home for fear of their kids’ safety. This affects the whole family, particularly siblings, who miss out on the many things families often do together, like going to a movie, attending sports events or going to restaurants. BluePath service dogs allow families to safely “reconnect,” to go out confidently in their community and enjoy the things that most families take for granted. A BluePath service dog can impact the lives of all of the family members, not just the child with autism.
Although we are newly formed, we have a wealth of experience. Some of us were formerly long-term employees of Guiding Eyes for the Blind. I was the Director of Veterinary Services there for 26 years, and was instrumental in the formation of their “Heeling Autism” service dog program, which was recently closed. This was the motivation to form BluePath, as many children were left without this important service.
Our vision is to become the leader in providing autism service dogs. We are excited to begin helping parents rediscover life’s potential for their children AND themselves. We have great admiration for all that Randy and his team has accomplished with 2020 Vision Quest and we are honored to have the opportunity to introduce ourselves to you here.
On behalf of the BluePath team, we extend our wishes for a happy, healthy and successful New Year to the 2020 Vision Quest family!
On August 29 the 2020 Vision Quest School year begins with a trip to North Country Union High School in Newport, VT which is a travelling stretch for the team. Their theme of “Achievement through Perseverance” seems perfectly matched and we are enthused to begin the core part of our mission. Before undergoing this part of the work though, there was one more August weekend to enjoy. Our good friends Greg and Heather helped us find a delightful nearby nature retreat with incredibly clear waters. We haven’t had the chance to really give Autumn any swimming options and she wasn’t the graceful Olympian her web-pawed heritage might suggest but, there’s much fun in this romping game of water fetch. We thought our blog deserved a light and fun easing out of the dog days of August and hope you agree.
Last night I attended my fourth Peak Potential Dinner and Charity Auction (the sixth one they’ve held). As I reflect on the night one word comes to mind:
G ~ Guiding Eyes for the Blind
The event was attended by 24 puppy raisers from NH, ME and MA and 6 puppies in training (3 black Labs and 3 yellow Labs).
The hit of the party was 8-week-old yellow Lab “Honey” that was carried around and loved by all. This event is a special night for the puppy raisers. It is a chance to socialize with each other while supporting a cause that is at the core of each of us. This is to provide the gift of love and raise a puppy for approximately 14 months and then give it back to Guiding Eyes for the Blind. This priceless gift – a Guide Dog will provide a person with vision loss, not only independence and mobility but also companionship.
The dinner works as a wonderful training venue for our pups. It allows the puppies to practice greeting people, settling at the tables with other dogs and practicing good house manners while food is being served. We each appreciate the chance to be welcomed with our pups by all of those attending the event.
Pat Weber, the Regional Manager for Guiding Eyes for the Blind, and Bill LeBlanc, the NH Region Coordinator, accepted a check from 2020 Vision Quest of $20,200 for the non-profit Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
A second check for $20,200 was given to the NH Association of the Blind.
I ~ Inspiration
The culmination of the dinner is getting the chance to hear Randy Pierce speak. The slideshow that accompanied Randy’s talk reviewed some of his amazing accomplishments as a blind athlete this past year: running the Boston Marathon and the National Championship, being the first blind athlete to compete in the Tough Mudder in LA, watching the amazing video and then Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. Throughout the slideshow Randy mentioned his beloved Guide Dog Quinn who passed away from cancer a year and a half ago. His dedication and devotion to Quinn is evident as you hear Randy’s voice quiver at the mention of his unforgettable pup. All of the puppy raisers also learn by watching Randy’s Guide Dog Autumn working the event with Randy. She is a beautiful black and tan Labrador retriever that Randy received from Guiding Eyes for the Blind.
V ~ Vision
My take away “nugget” from Randy last night was this: “You do not need to have sight to have Vision.”
Randy has vision. He is a goal setter. We found out that in the next year, Randy plans on writing a book. It was fun watching Randy act as an auctioneer – one of the special auction items was to be emailed pages of the book he will be writing each month. The silent auctions were fabulous. It was fun to take my pup “Gary” and walk by all of the incredible silent auction items. What a great way to raise money for the 2020 Vision Quest charity.
E ~ Education
One of the key missions of 2020 Vision Quest is to lead and inspire students and professionals to reach beyond adversity and achieve their “peak potential.” It is mind boggling to think that Randy and 2020 Vision Quest have spoken to 45,000 students. He recounted letters he has received from some of the schools. Just recently, a student that attended one of Randy’s presentations was going to drop out of school — but decided not to because of the inspiration and impacting message that he received from Randy. He does this all while integrating life lessons into little stories that teach about overcoming obstacles by managing adversity.
By attending the Peak Potential Dinner and Charity Auction, I am able to support the organization that is so important to me – Guiding Eyes for the Blind – but I gain so much from Randy. He inspires me to do more…. To push myself….. To set Goals…. To have vision… in both my personal life and in my career.
“To Believe and Achieve Through Goal Setting, Problem Solving, and Perseverance!”
Thank you, Randy… you GIVE .
Michelle Russell, MBA, is a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind and a NH Region Volunteer. She has raised 3 pups, currently one of the pups she raised – Black Labrador Retriever “Randy” is in NYC working as a bomb detection dog keeping us safe. The puppy that she is currently raising (pup #4) is 5-month-old black Lab “Gary” who attended the dinner. She is also a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty in Nashua, NH. Please visit her website.
If anyone is interested in becoming a puppy raiser for Guiding Eyes for the Blind or buying/selling a home in NH they can contact Michelle@NHselecthomes.com for more information.
With a mountain as large as Kilimanjaro on our horizon, we are slated to have a more quiet start to our school presentation approach this year. As this is a cornerstone of our mission, I wanted to encourage each and every one of you to help us by becoming an active part of our outreach. I’m sharing a blog from a few years ago and celebrating that we have now increased our school contact to more than 43,000 students. We have finished the marvelous update to our “For Educators” page and are building the essential list of volunteer drivers. We still need you to help share the opportunity with teachers, administrators and parents as well as choosing to be part of the volunteer system which makes this all possible. I won’t return from Kilimanjaro until October but Kristen Taylor is eagerly ready to help coordinate and schedule presentations going forward to make up for the lost month this year. So will you help? It’s as easy as the “ABC” blog below suggests!
Our adventures have often captured attention and earned us some remarkable media attention. They are, however, so very far from what we do and why we do it. Those adventures are entirely funded personally and we use the attention to hopefully draw focus to our real work. While this information and more is available for those who do explore our website, I wanted to highlight it for the readers of our blog and social media directly.
I once believed everything fun or important in my life was over. I thought I could not and would not have a life worth living. I made jokes and mostly treaded through waters of denial, frustration, and even anger. This is a far distance from the person I’ve become and I never want to forget the roots of those feelings when I first transitioned to blindness at the age of 22. What made the difference for me was the right people and the right perspective.
As I’ve since learned and often try to express, “Going blind is so much harder than being blind.” In fact, for any of us the first encounter with any challenge is so much more difficult than it is once we choose to plan a path for going forward. While there are countless friends and family in the fundamental part of my conversion, two organizations in particular deserve my appreciation and much of the efforts of 2020 Vision Quest. As such, we raise funds and proudly donate those funds to the NH Association for the Blind and, forever in honor of the Mighty Quinn, Guiding Eyes for the Blind. I hope through my efforts and the involvement of many to ensure the life changing services those organizations provide will always be available for the manyh who would benefit so greatly from those services. That’s the “why” behind the fundraising–and yet, still not our core mission.
I have a goal to help every single person who might experience feelings similar to my own at that lowest time. I want to demonstrate by my actions and encourage through my words as well the notion of “choosing the right response to any adversity,” about believing in possibility and setting goals to continually strive to reach the peaks we all deserve. I especially wish to provide this opportunity and perspective to students of all ages and to enhance all of our communities by the building and sustaining of each individual into the teamwork which makes life and possibility more successful. I have been fortunate to earn and receive the support of so many people and organizations in a multitude of ways. Whether joining into the core team of volunteers for 2020 vision Quest, helping my own adventures, helping us connect to schools, businesses, and organizations to further our message, donating directly or by attending events like our Annual Peak Potential Dinner and Auction, there have been many transforming this message from an “I” into a “we.”
While it’s hard work and thousands of hours, it is also incredibly rewarding to observe the positive impact we have already had in our brief five years. There are times I’m tired from the adventures, the presentations, the organization and administration efforts and yet when I think of how high we still have yet to climb and what spectacular views await, I find it easy to reach out for this team to join together and continue our climb. I hope you’ll consider sharing this and joining the efforts in whatever way works for you.
(Coming next week: let’s talk about a smaller team as I introduce you to the Kilimanjaro Team heading to Africa on September 18!)
One of the most rewarding and impactful aspects of 2020 Vision Quest is our School Educational Program. On Tuesday, January 13, I had the pleasure of visiting the John F. Ryan and the Louse Davy Trahan Elementary Schools in Tewksbury, MA. As I listened to the school announcements prior to our presentation at the Ryan School, I heard their PA announce, “Believe in PAWSibility – Woof” and knew our message was already resonating with these fifth and sixth grade students.
I was happy to share many messages with them including my own more backward A-B-C approach: “Conceive – Believe – Achieve.” Their insightful questions allowed us to cover many topics, with teamwork resonating perhaps strongest of all.
My afternoon in Tewksbury brought me to the Trahan school where a teacher’s request enabled us to showcase an Autumn-style language lesson. They wanted me to walk around the cafeteria in which we were presenting such that all of the students could get a quality look at how Harness Guide work is accomplished. This was a simple request, but in order to have Autumn walk in a loop around the entire room I needed to give Autumn a target destination. The only thing which stood out visually to the teacher was a window and I’d never taught Autumn the word window. She knows door, stair, elevator, car, left, right and many other words, but not window. So for these third and fourth graders, it was time to teach her.
This is done with a powerful teaching tool given to us by the Guiding Eyes for the Blind trainers. When I make my hand into a fist and say the word “Touch” she is trained to enthusiastically push her muzzle to my hand quickly. My job is to give her an immediate “Yes!” exaltation and follow it with a treat. By repeating this with my hand against an object I want her to learn, she begins to associate that object with what comes next.
In this case, “Touch window” was repeated with the muzzle nuzzle and reward. After a few times, the first remained but the word touch was removed such that window was now the direct association with the object. Presto! Suddenly Autumn had learned a new word, and when I said “Find the window,” she navigated me directly to it. When I said “Find my chair,” she returned me to the place from which we began. It was a wonderful lesson on my girl’s ever growing vocabulary and let the students see her enthusiasm for learning – something she has in common with many students at our school presentations.
Most of us learn to depend extensively upon our sight. When that begins to fail us to any amount, it can be mildly challenging to completely overwhelming. It is very common for denial to be amongst the earliest and strongest responses. It is both sad and frustrating to know this denial often inhibits the most helpful approaches to address these challenges offered by those with the benefit of experience and education which has likely solved these difficulties many times over.
I’m still amazed at how many people contact me because they or someone they care about are facing some level of vision loss and don’t know how to approach it. I’m delighted for the contact and chance to offer support and resources. But prior to going blind, I’d have never realized what a significant number of people are challenged with significant vision loss–it’s all too often an invisible malady. As such, I wanted to suggest a few thoughtful approaches for you or anyone you know who may be experiencing any amount of vision loss.
Please especially consider that the number one cause of blindness is “age-related macular degeneration” and it is very likely impacting people you know. Remember also that “blindness” is a term often feared as part of the denial because it is the extreme case of visual impairment. Help is beneficial and available for those encountering any amount of life impacting vision loss.
First and foremost, use the benefit of a knowledgeable and capable medical world to take the best care of you and your eyes. My ophthalmologist at Nashua Eye Associates made fantastic choices and in conjunction with my neural ophthalmologists likely helped me preserve my sight for 11 years after my medical condition struck. Do everything reasonable to protect your sight and at the same time explore all the opportunities for how best to utilize the sight you have remaining.
Every state has organizations similar to the NH Association for the Blind. Whether it’s the IRIS Network in Maine, the Mass Association for the Blind or many others, there are organizations who specialize in all aspects of “Low Vision Therapy” that offer tips, tricks, and tools for managing all aspects of your life. Having trouble threading a needle? There’s a tool for that! Trouble with colors – you bet there’s a tool for that. Simply wish to read and enjoy a book or paper as you did most of your life? The right lighted magnifier for your needs is probably available. The trained staff will help you determine the right fit for your situation and even help you with the training and use of those approaches.
So if you are in or near New Hampshire, I strongly encourage that first call to the New Hampshire Association for the Blind at 603-224-4039. A quick email or google search will undoubtedly help you find the right organization near you otherwise. They’ll have some immediate recommendations available and more extensive possibilities certain to ensure your possibilities are as limitless as your willingness to conceive, believe, and achieve!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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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