Students typically stumble out of bed in the morning and head to class, unless they are one of the select group of volunteers who also leash up an 8-week old golden retriever puppy with a jacket on that reads “Future Guide Dog.”
The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind is a non-profit organization that offers a chance for students and community members to raise a puppy in preparation for a life as a seeing-eye dog for visually impaired and disabled Americans across the east coast.
“The best and most rewarding part of working with these dogs is seeing your puppy graduate and go on to help someone who needs them and knowing you made a difference in their lives,” Katie Lee, former Statesboro area coordinator for the foundation and Georgia Southern University student, said.
Volunteers keep the puppies from around eight weeks of age to almost 16 months of age. Volunteers are encouraged to bring their puppy everywhere they go in order to acclimate them to the life of a service or guide dog, Lee said.
All applications can be submitted online and each is evaluated individually on a case-by-case basis. There are currently about 13 volunteers in the Statesboro area with plenty of applications still pending, Deonte Watkins, current area coordinator for the foundation and senior general studies major, said.
The foundation has been experienced a lot of growth recently with almost 50 percent more dogs being fostered than previous years, Lee said.
“I learned about the organization from a friend on the football team who was already training a dog, and I asked him what he was doing and why, and it all really intrigued me,” Watkins said.
“I like the experience that comes out of it. You learn discipline, accountability, responsibility and a whole lot more. It’s almost like training to raise a child one day,” Watkins said.
The volunteers are provided with training manuals, videos, classes and regular staff assistance for their efforts. The group of volunteers holds one meeting per month to check up on the puppies and track progress. The foundation currently uses Poodles, Golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers in its training program, Watkins said.
“The Guide Dog Foundation likes to be really hands-on and helpful with its volunteers. They always make sure you and your dog are doing well by giving you plenty of advice and instruction on how to raise the puppy,” Lee said.
The foundation covers the cost for a crate, veterinary costs, a leash, ID tags and coat. Any expenses that are incurred are tax-deductible.
“I love that my dog is going to help someone who needs it more than I do,” Alyssa Zerbe, veteran volunteer for the foundation and senior biology major at GSU, said.
“This is really a program for people who are dedicated to animals and have a lot of heart. It’s harder than it looks but it’s all worth it,” Zerbe said.
“I have a ton of people walk up to me and thank me for volunteering. It’s one of the things that makes the job so rewarding,” Lee said.
Watkins said, “I always try to put myself in others people’s shoes; I would want to be helped out and assisted in any way that I can, knowing that my work with these dogs is going to be a blessing to other people gives me all the fulfillment I need.”