With my daughter in the final stretch of college, and a reunion at my own Alma mater fast approaching, I’m in a graduation state-of-mind. Last weekend, as a volunteer at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, I witnessed a different type of graduation—the sort that inspires one to reassess personal priorities and consider the true meaning of this concept.
The Guiding Eyes for the Blind (or “GEB”) is a non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of blind and visually impaired people by matching them with specially bred and trained guide dogs, with the goal of enhancing students’ freedom, safety and independence to assure greater dignity and new horizons of opportunity. These special guide dogs receive nearly two years of basic training and socialization; they then embark on more formal training with a professional instructor to perfect the skills necessary to safely guide a blind person, such as indicating elevation changes and navigating obstacles. After training is completed, each dog is matched with a student, based on personality, temperament and the student’s specific needs. The student-canine pair then trains together for three weeks on-site at the GEB campus in Yorktown Heights, NY, as they forge a lifelong bond as a “guiding eyes” team.
I was first introduced to the Guiding Eyes 15 years ago when our family adopted two golden retriever puppies who had been released from the guide dog training program. We raised and trained these two beloved pups, and, in return, they gave our family endless joy and unconditional love. I wanted to ‘give back’ to this wonderful organization, so I began volunteering there two years ago. Every month, I assist at the class graduation by helping to run the on-site souvenir shop. This gives me the opportunity to interact with many of the graduates and their families.
The graduation ceremony celebrates the completion of each guide dog team’s training. From this day forward, lives are forever changed. At the ceremony, the graduates line up and file into the room, each student led proudly by his/her beloved guide dog. The room is filled with the graduates’ friends and family members, dog trainers, guiding eyes staff, GEB supporters and the dozens of volunteers who help raise and socialize the puppies. Sometimes, graduates address the audience. They may speak or read a poem, sing an original song or play a musical instrument. The breadth and degree of talent among the graduating classes is always awe-inspiring. At one recent ceremony, a graduate (who is also a teacher) read a poem she had written based on the iconic children’s book, Goodnight Moon, entitled “Hello World.” Here are a few verses:
Hello, faith and love. Hello, peace and joy.
Hello, strength and confidence. Hello, “good girl” and “good boy.”
In the great big world, there are street crossings and traffic lights,
And a bundle of challenges for those without sight.
And there are worries to drop and mountains to top,
And corners to turn and opportunities to earn,
And a few little fears and a few little tears.
And some hopes and some dreams, and twelve new guide dog teams,
And a million believers of noble esteem.
Hello, second chances. Hello, being free.
Hello, unbelievable gratitude. We can finally see.
Another graduate, who was paired with his fourth GEB dog, shared inspiring words about his relationship with his guide dogs. This man spoke tenderly about the special relationship the student and dog share, the mutual respect and patience required, and the challenge of letting go and allowing oneself to experience unconditional love and trust, ultimately leading to an unbreakable bond. This emotional tribute resonated with everyone who has ever had a close, loving, trusting relationship— canine or human.
Many colleges, including my own Alma mater, use the term commencement instead of graduation. Until recently, I always preferred graduation, as I felt it signified the successful completion of an important life chapter and attainment of a goal or milestone. However, after attending several Guiding Eyes graduations, I now fully appreciate the deeper meaning and significance of commencement. For Guiding Eyes graduates and their dogs, this truly is a commencement—a hopeful beginning—the promise of a better life filled with greater independence, new vision (literally and figuratively), enhanced personal dignity and expanded opportunities to explore everything the world has to offer.
So, when I attend my daughter’s Commencement next month, I will be particularly mindful that this milestone not only marks a major achievement in her life, but also, it represents a new beginning, filled with hope, joy and opportunity.