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[whitespace] Local volunteers for Guide Dogs for the Blind help others get around with a canine navigator

Campbell--Imagine getting an adorable two-month-old puppy, bonding with it daily, taking it everywhere with you, and then giving it back after a year. Now picture, instead, that you are blind, or going blind, and that you have received a highly trained dog to be your guide and constant companion. Both of those emotional scenarios are a reality in Campbell, thanks to several remarkable local residents and Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc.

The nonprofit Guide Dogs organization, founded in 1942, initially trained dogs for servicemen who became blind during World War II. Since then it has paired approximately 7,500 guide dogs with visually impaired individuals. Its state-of-the-art training facilities for both dogs and their future owners are in San Rafael, Calif., and Boring, Ore., but the dogs must first get through their puppyhood elsewhere. Guide Dogs' 1,000 volunteer puppy raisers in eight western states are among the main reasons for the organization's success.

Scott Garcia, a 2000 Westmont High School graduate, is a puppy raiser and a future vet. He is realistic about giving back a dog that has adored him, and vice versa, pointing to a Westmont Future Farmers of America (FFA) agriculture program that prepared him well for loss.

"I personally raised three animals that went to the slaughterhouse, so I don't get attached to animals that much," Garcia said.

Earlier this year, Garcia received the President's Student Service Challenge Scholarship for raising Rockford, a golden retriever/Lab mix, for Guide Dogs. Garcia currently attends West Valley College, often with Mahoney, his second Guide Dogs puppy, a, nine-month-old, 72-pound, light blonde golden retriever.

While Garcia gave an interview for this article, Mahoney lay contentedly on the sidewalk, lifting his head occasionally to check out passing pedestrians. He scored major points with Garcia by keeping the rest of his body in the "down" position, an important skill used by working guide dogs.

Garcia works part time at Kirkwood Animal Hospital and plans to eventually transfer to UC-Davis for its veterinary program.

"I gain veterinary experience with Mahoney," Garcia said. "I brush his teeth--really, I do--clean out his ears, give him manicures, check his paws after outings and brush his fur daily."

He added that frequent physical contact with the puppy is important because a guide dog must always be totally at ease with having a human's hands near its face. Guide Dogs gives its puppy raisers a strict training manual, which they must use for the 12 to 16 months that they keep the dog. The animal then goes back to one of the training campuses and usually spends the next five months mastering difficult skills. But some dogs, such as Garcia's Rockford, flunk out during the final stages of the program. Rockford is now a permanent member of the delighted Garcia family.

Other than food, most of the puppy's expenses are covered by Guide Dogs. When Santa Clara County puppy raisers need veterinary care or advice on problems, they contact Carol Bettencourt or Emily Smith, the county's team leaders. The two women also accompany the puppy raisers and dogs on mandatory weekly field trips to public settings, such as airports, light rail stations and malls.

Frances Medalen of Campbell and her entire family are raising Harina, a five-month-old yellow Lab. Her daughter Sarah, 10, finally persuaded Medalen and her husband, John, to get a puppy a few years after they had seen members of Guide Dogs in a parade. Her brother, Sam, 12, has also become involved in Harina's training, even going on the weekly outings.

Medalen understands her daughter's feelings about the smart Harina. As she was interviewed, Medalen inadvertently used the word "okay" while she was looking at the resting puppy, and Harina quickly stood up. The puppy has already learned that "okay" is supposed to mean, "It's okay to get up now," so she was ready to go anywhere.

"She's an awesome dog," Medalen said. "We talk about seeing what happens [during her future training]. Our first hope is that she will pass and be able to be there for somebody."

But Medalen, who teaches parenting for social services, part time, and also volunteers at her children's schools, admits she nearly panicked when a little puppy entered her busy life.

"I was thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I'm overwhelmed here. I got in way deeper than I expected.' That was probably the first two days, but now I'm glad we did it."

Garcia agrees that there is personal satisfaction in raising the puppies.

"I sometimes see a woman walking with her guide dog on Winchester Avenue, near Hamilton," he said. "Whenever I see her or other people with guide dogs, it makes me feel proud, not only for me but for other raisers, to know that our work is going for such a good cause."

The woman Garcia has seen is Kathleen Scherschel, who frequently walks in the area with her black Lab, Ritzy. Born in 1953 at 2 pounds, 13 ounces, Scherschel never had sight in her right eye and was only partially sighted in the left eye, due to a damaging level of oxygen in her incubator. When she was 22 years old and a student at West Valley College, Scherschel developed a sudden, severe form of glaucoma and suffered a complete loss of vision a year later.

She eventually received a bachelor's degree in psychology from San Jose State University in 1985, with the assistance of her guide dogs, Sophia and, later, Tiki. As with all guide dog users, Sherschel got her first dog after proving that she knew how to use a cane, that she had a good sense of direction and a familiarity with various traffic sounds.

She had intended to become a counselor, but rights for the disabled were minimal in the '80s, and a university professor discouraged her from receiving a master's degree.

To make matters worse, her landlord informed her that dogs were not allowed in his building, regardless of the reason. Scherschel said that she was not very assertive back then, so she spent the next eight years living and working at several jobs without a dog. A devout Catholic, she readily acknowledges that it was her religious faith that sustained her throughout all the hard times.

She now lives with Ritzy in an apartment, and enjoys audio books and being part of a spiritual study group at her church. People are generally very helpful to her, even getting out of their cars to guide her and Ritzy, as happened recently during construction-related detours near her home. However, Scherschel is finding it difficult to reenter the work force, even though she recently received a certificate for learning several software programs that are designed for use by the blind.

"A lot of prejudice is out there," she said. "They don't understand what we can do and are afraid to take a risk on us."

Unlike Scherschel, David Carlson, 48, a marketing engineer at Agilent Technologies, had time to plan for a sightless future. He began losing his eyesight 33 years ago due to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease of the retina. Carlson graduated from SJSU in 1984 with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and today uses a PC software package that converts scanned text into speech. His computer also speaks the words as he types.

He received his first guide dog, Galahad, from Guide Dogs in 1989, when he was legally blind; since 1991 he only has a perception of either bright light or darkness. Three years ago Carlson got Jeremiah, a yellow Lab, with whom he goes to work every day.

He pointed out that although the dogs are trained to obey their owners, they must also be prepared to show "intelligent disobedience" in order to protect them. One day he had signaled Galahad to walk forward, but the dog backed up immediately, pulling Carlson with him. As a result, Carlson sustained only minor injuries from a car making a careless turn.

Carlson enjoys traveling with Carol, his wife of 14 years, and said that he gets the sense of a place from its sounds, smells and a tour guide's descriptions. Jeremiah often accompanies Carlson in aircraft cabins and aboard trains without a problem.

However, according to Carlson, well-meaning people sometimes create problems because they have misconceptions about the blind, often when a blind person asks for directions.

"A lot of people think that blind people need more help than they really need," he said. "They either shout or grab you by the arm, instead of saying, 'Follow me.'"

He added that there is sometimes another response from unthinking individuals.

"They'll say, 'It's that way,'" Carlson said, laughing. "They don't realize that pointing is a challenge for me."
Susan Wiedmann

For more information about Guide Dogs for the Blind Inc., call 1-800-295-4050, or visit www.guidedogs.com.

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Web extra to the November 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro.

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