TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (WSAV) – Every year, Southeastern Guide Dog volunteers gather together for “PuppyCon”. This year’s educational conference was hosted on Tybee Island.
The nonprofit organization’s event, sponsored by Mermaid Cottages, helps guide and service dog volunteers improve their training tactics. People at this year’s conference shared their stories of how their dogs have changed their lives. Marisa Blanco, a certified trainer for Southeastern Guide Dogs attributed the volunteers who spend around 12 to 14 months raising the puppies as the foundation of the organization’s impact.
“Our puppy raisers are definitely the foundation of the school, they clearly, and this is what’s emotional, they clearly you know, do this great act for us. They’re all volunteers,” Blanco said.
People like 15-year-old Eli Ross and his family, dedicate months of their lives to training the dogs, but Ross said his service is easy to give.
“Humans don’t really deserve dogs and how pure and um good they are to us. And I really feel like no matter what they’ll always stick by our side, and it’s just like the least that we can do to help them,” Ross stated.
Leslie Shepard, the Puppy Raising Director for the Southeastern Guide Dogs, said the process to train each puppy is both time-consuming and expensive.
“It costs tens of thousands of dollars for Southeastern to raise and train and pair a guide dogs or a service dog with a veteran or a children’s and teens program dog. We have no government funding, we rely solely on donations. All of our dogs are placed at no charge to the recipient,” Shepard described.
Trainers, like Blanco, said seeing the impact each furry companion makes in the life of a person dealing with visual impairment, a Veteran struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or a child with special needs, is what helps them say goodbye after they complete each puppy’s extensive training. In Blanco’s 17 years of training, she has worked with over 200 puppies.
“We hear, ‘this is the first time we’ve seen like my spouse even have a smile in years,’ because they know this dog not only is it going to be a wonderful companion but it’s going to be able to get their freedom and independence back to be able to go out and not have to take someone’s arm or a cane,” Blanco said.
Shepard said the amount of people who have received the dogs at no cost, is only made possible by the volunteers that join them and the people who provide donations; efforts she described as “life changing.”
“You are impacting not just those people, but their families and their entire communities and there is no more worthwhile volunteer opportunity that I can think of, to know that you have been instrumental in transforming someone’s life,” Shepard declared