If you followed our series of articles about the training our students go through when they come on campus to get their guide dogs, then you have learned what the training entails. And while we explained that process as best as we could, we are still on the outside looking in. But now a unique opportunity has presented itself: Our Admissions/Student Services Manager is getting her very first guide dog and she has agreed to take us along on that journey.
Suzy Wilburn is typically the first person our students interact with when they are in the process of getting a guide dog. Suzy extols the virtues of Southeastern Guide Dogs, explains the training process, performs phone interviews and oversees the career change program.
Suzy began her career at Southeastern as a Kennel Assistant, caring for the dogs in the Training Kennel and hoping to one day become a trainer. Her love for the dogs was evident in the way she interacted with them and how their adoring eyes followed her every move.
What wasn’t evident to those of us around her was that Suzy suffered vision loss due to the genetic condition Stargardt’s disease. Her peripheral vision is good, but all she sees with her central vision is “fireworks.” A run-in with a low-hanging branch while working with a dog on campus made it clear that training was not the path she was meant to take – if she couldn’t keep herself from running into things, how would she keep her students safe?
Suzy had worked her way up to Manager of the Training Kennel, when she was asked to take on a new challenge. The Admissions Manager was ill, so Suzy stepped up and took on those responsibilities – it would be that decision that would lead her to where she is now, getting her first guide.
While working in the kennels, she didn’t see the need for a guide because there were limited areas within her workspace, plus, she worried about what the dog would think if it was brought back to the kennel every day while Suzy worked. But, when she moved to the administration building, more and more obstacles came into play and the need for a guide increased. Suzy knew she would need more independence in order to do her job effectively, as there were calls for her to give presentations and attend conferences. Traveling alone was something she hadn’t done since 2005 when her sight became so compromised she had to stop driving. But with her new position, travel was going to be a necessity.
Going through the training process will also give Suzy insight into what a student experiences while here on Southeastern’s campus and allow her to empathize far better than a casual observer would. Suzy pushed hard to get her application through the process and yet, it still took seven months to find the right dog for her. Now that she has been matched with her guide, we’ll get to read all about the training process as she sees it, through a student’s eyes.