Guide Dog: Take II: Day 2 Wesley

Today I met a beautiful soul who happens to be my guide dog partner. I could not be more thrilled with this match. It is only the first day of our journey together but I am already in love.

This morning my classmates and I began with some Juno work. For those not familiar with GDB lingo, Juno work is when an instructor holds the harness or collar and simulates common dog behaviors. Using this method allows for handlers to learn commands and offers an opportunity to troubleshoot through possible distractions. In all honesty, I found that my concrete obedience and guidework were really rusty. I felt like I had forgotten everything and had to start from scratch. My patient instructor helped me to gain confidence and find my “guiding legs” again. The muscle memory started to come back to me and I eventually settled into the rhythm. There are a few other retrains (handlers on their 2nd, 3rd… dog) in my class and they had trouble with Juno as well which made me feel much better about struggling at first. Through doing this Juno work, I did discover that I have some less desirable habits that I’ll be working to correct. But I’m up for the challenge.

The fun really began after lunch. I waited in my room and waited for my instructor to bring my new partner. As I listened to all of my classmates open their doors and welcome in their dogs, my heart beat faster and faster. I ran through whatever name possibilities I could come up with in my head “Alejandro? Donald? Ricardo? Luigi? Frederick?” And as I continued to wait, my anticipation ever rising, I couldn’t help but notice that I was overcome with peace. This surprised me. I would have expected to have metal butterflies in my stomach as is normal for me when something new or important is coming. I attribute this serene feeling to none other than the Holy Spirit. This whole journey of retiring Retha and waiting for another guide has brought me so much closer to God. I’ve faced a higher sense of vulnerability than I have felt in a long time yet these past few months have been different. Instead of being overwhelmed by anxiety or stress I found it relieving and enticing to lay my burdens before the cross. I had full faith that God held me in His hand. He had a plan and however difficult it was at times, I had more trust in that plan than I’ve ever had. As Jesus was with me as I handed over Retha’s leash in August and as He jumped with me when I dove head-first into a new year of school without a dog, I know that He stood at my side today as I awaited my new partner. These past months have been miserable in many ways but the soft blanket of Godly peace I felt today is proof that the struggle was worth it.

After an indeterminable amount of time, I heard the promising knock on my door. I leapt to open it and met my instructor leading Wesley, a stout, male black lab. I knelt to greet Wesley as he affectionately licked my cheek. I held back tears as I ran my hands over Wesley’s soft and fluffy coat, listening as best I could to the information from my instructor. Once we were alone and given time to get to know each other, Wesley flopped over on his side and asked for a good belly rub which I of course provided. He couldn’t have cared less about the numerous smells on the floor. He just wanted my attention and I was glad to give it to him. Automatically I knew that this was my dog; this was the partner that God had readied for me.

Wesley and I worked on heeling and some basic guidework around the GDB campus. I admit, it felt much different from with Retha but I felt with every step that Wesley was trying with all of his heart to do the right thing. We used a lot of food rewards and I discovered that Wesley is highly motivated by them but also thrived on physical and verbal praise. At dinner, Wesley laid at my side like a perfect angel. And now as I sit writing this post, he sleeps next to my bed, positioning himself as close to the bed(where I’m working) as possible. He is so mellow and calm and I absolutely adore that. We seriously have the same temperament. I simply adore him and his old soul.

The real work begins tomorrow and I am excited to get walking with this precious boy. I have a feeling that our journey together will be full of joy and discovery. Of course it will take time for us to bond and become a true team but I just want to enjoy every step along the way with Wesley.

Thank you all again for your continued support in this journey! I am beyond blessed to have such a loving community around me and now around Wesley as well. Stay tuned for more updates about our progress in training. Welcome to the family Wesley. image-1

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Guide Dog: Take II; Day 1 Arrival

Some very exciting things are happening! A few weeks ago, I received a call from Guide Dogs for the Blind letting me know that they had an open spot for training November 23 to Dec 6 and they had a dog ready for me. needless to say, I was overjoyed that God had set such a miracle in my path. My prayers had been answered in every way.

So here I am on this lovely Sunday morning, sitting in the back of my best friend Sarah,s car as we drive to Boring, OR for training. I honestly can’t believe this is actually happening but I am so grateful that it is. Tonight I will meet my classmates and settle into my room for the next two weeks. It feels a little bitter sweet making this drive because Retha is not with me but I know she is with a wonderful family and is living the life she deserves. I am so very excited to meet my new partner tomorrow afternoon and am hopeful that we will be a good team.

As I did when I was training with Retha, I will post daily updates of our two-week training so stay tuned hear of adventures with my new best friend.

Thank you all for your support and encouragement through this process. The time I spent without a guide was some of the most lonely and desperate time I’ve experienced. But within that discomfort and struggle, I believe I found myself. I learned that a cane does not define me and it is possible to live a life without sight and still carry myself with grace and humility. I know now that God gave me this time to discover more of my identity as a capable young woman who happens to be blind. I confess that I am thankful this time is over but I understand that all of this is just another part of my journey.

As I enter this new chapter with a new partner by my side, I am confident.
Confident that the lessons I learned without a dog will endure.
Confident that neither fear nor insecurity will hold me back.
Confident that I will persevere as it is my God given habit.

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My Sweet Sarah

Several years ago, I rode and leased a beautiful Paint mare named Sarah. She was in my life for almost 6 years, enabling me to transition from the therapeutic riding environment to the able-bodied horse world with all of its opportunities and intricacies. I have never experienced a deeper or stronger bond with a horse than I did with Sarah. In early summer of 2012, Sarah had to be sold and I was not in a position to buy her. Ever since that day I have regretted letting her slip through my fingers. I have missed her terribly and promised myself that someday I would get her back. Well just a few weeks ago, an opportunity for a second chance arose. Sarah came for sale and I have decided to buy her.

She has changed owners several times since leaving me and it is truly a miracle that she is making her way back to me. Her current owners have poured heart and soul into her and have done everything possible to get her healthy and content. They have done everything that I always wanted to do but couldn’t when I was leasing her. Sarah has been so loved and cared for in this home but just isn’t the right fit for her young rider whose riding aspirations have shifted. Because of this, her family decided to find Sarah a new home. Through connecting with her previous owner through Facebook, simply asking for an update on how Sarah was doing, I learned of her being for sale and instantly jumped on the opportunity to have my girl back.

I am fully aware that owning a horse while being a college student in Seattle isn’t an ideal or convenient situation. But honestly, what in my life is ever ideal or convenient???

I know that this new responsibility will be difficult mainly with finances but I am ready and willing to make sacrifices. All I want is to give Sarah a happy and healthy forever home. Her current owners have helped her become as healthy as she is today and I have every intention of keeping up with what is working for her. I have a boarding situation set up for her at a barn where a friend who lives on my floor at SPU boards her horse. She makes the drive frequently from SPU to the barn so it really couldn’t be more perfect. And this barn is right on a major trail system in a state park. Everything is coming together so perfectly that I can’t help but think that this is what was meant to happen all along. God is bringing Sarah back to me and is providing all of the pieces to make this work.

If everything goes as planned, Sarah will be mine in mid December. After I finish training with my new guide dog and get everything set for her, she will finally come home. Please be praying that everything comes together the way it is meant to especially in terms of finances. I have so much faith that all will be well in the end. I am just so humbled that my sweet Sarah has found her way back to me.

Thank you to Sarah’s past and current owners who cared for her so incredibly well. She is truly lucky to be loved by such wonderful people.

I went to visit Sarah yesterday for the first time in 3 years. I was so worried that she wouldn’t remember me but my worries were unnecessary. As I walked up to her, she instantly recognized me, nuzzling my hands and never taking her eyes off me. She also remembered my parents who were with me. It felt so good just to be with her again. When we eventually went to leave, it was heartbreaking to walk away as she watched me go. I have faith that we will be reunited again soon though. There really isn’t anything sweeter than being back with my best friend; my equine soul mate.

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One Lost Sheep

My sophomore year has begun!!! I am finally back on campus and getting into the rhythm of things! After arriving to to the beautiful (and brand new) Arnett Hall a week early, I participated in the annual Leadership Conference fro all student leaders on campus. I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with my Emerson/Arnett Hall Council members and we are planning some exciting things! Once we had all moved in to our rooms, our next project was to plan and prepare for new student check in and orientation which was only three days away. Too say the least, it was a highly stressful and exhausting few days! Thankfully new student check in went remarkably well in both Emerson and Arnett and I think we were able to create a really positive atmosphere to our new residents. I am really proud of this team and can’t wait to get more work done!

On a personal level, I have had a large burden on my heart since getting back to SPU. After meeting our new residents and those returning, we held our very first Arnett Hall tradition. New students started on the first floor lobby before moving up floor by floor while completing a different group game or activity on each floor. Once they reached the 5th and final floor, all of Arnett’s student leaders were there to congratulate them on working together to get to the top floor. This celebration turned into a dance party where I began to feel burdened. In “dance party” type situations, I am highly uncomfortable. There is so much going on around me and I am beyond overwhelmed. This anxiety hit me harder than expected on the night of tradition and I honestly felt paralyzed by fear. I began to think of all of the other students who may be feeling the same fear in that situation.

From the 5th floor, we returned to the lobby for a sparkling cider toast which was followed by yet another dance party. Eventually I became too uncomfortable to stay where I was and I made the decision to separate myself from the situation and go back to my room and go to bed. Once I was alone, I absolutely lost it. The anxiety was so overpowering and the whole thing felt like a great big trigger of my social struggles in high school. I felt as if I was alone in the crowd and felt the same kind of isolation that was all too real for me in high school. My heart breaks now for even one student who felt that kind of fear or anxiety that night. That experience may have turned an otherwise exciting evening into a highly negative and devastating time. I hurt for the one or more students who may have gotten back to their room and broken down as I did. College is scary enough without an activity that highlights upon many people’s fear. That night, I of course called my pastor-at-heart momma who gave me some incredible advice.
She asked me, “Ali do you remember the story in the Bible about when the shepherd leaves the flock of 99 to go find and secure the 1 lost sheep?”

Through the tears I muffled “yes” and began to understand what she was getting at.

I have been that one lost sheep. I know exactly and completely what it is to feel such an extreme level of discomfort, isolation and fear. In this way, I was hurting right there with the students who felt consumed by fear during the dance party.

It is not okay to leave that one sheep behind. I want to be the shepherd who is dedicated to securing and comforting the lost sheep. As a member of hall council, I have the ability to be a voice for the lost sheep. I have the opportunity to create situations, programs and events where it is easier and more comfortable to keep the otherwise lost sheep in the herd where they can feel included and valued. As student leaders, it is our responsibility to be these shepherds and I am blessed to be in a position with the ability to positively effect lives. I am beyond grateful to take up this cross and lead for those whom I can empathize so deeply with.

Luke 15:4 NIV
Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

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Rolling with the Pottery Wheel

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to be a counselor for one of our overnight 5 day camps with teens with visual impairments or physical disabilities. One of our activities included going to a beautiful pottery studio where we all got to make small pinch pots and help make one large pot on the pottery wheel. I was super intrigued by the process of making things on the pottery wheel and our wonderful instructor invited me back to work one-on-one on the wheel! I was super excited for the opportunity and had the chance to have my first lesson this past week!

I had an absolute blast! It was so much fun to learn the strokes and methods involved in creating different things. It felt so good to be able to work on something and not have to use my vision. I was actually much more effective without sight!

I cannot thank my lovely teacher enough for her generosity and enthusiasm in teaching me! She was so wonderful in helping me to learn the process and I thoroughly enjoyed just spending time with her. We got to create some awesome pieces that I will be bringing to school with me! I definitely have the perfect ice cream bowl now! I will try to post pictures of the completed products!
Maybe I’ll have to make this another one of my many hobbies!

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Springboard Milestone

With one week left here in Utah, my NAC internship is coming to a close. So much has happened this summer and I have grown leaps and bounds from all that I have experienced. As I begin packing to go home, I realize that I am at a sort of springboard milestone in my journey. I need to decide whether to jump head first into embracing independence or shy away from the endless opportunities in front of me.
It has been about two weeks since I returned my beloved Retha to Guide Dogs. I still feel very confident in my decision but the emotions are just now hitting me. It is profoundly strange not having her by my side 24/7 and I still catch myself making mental slips in thinking “oh it’s time to feed Retha” or “Retha probably has to go potty.” But just in the past few days, I am terribly lonely. I miss her presence and the comfort of being able to reach down and pet her whenever I wanted to. I miss listening to her sleepy breathing at night and the silly things she did that made me smile. In all honesty, I just don’t feel complete without a guide dog. I know she is where she’s supposed to be in every way and I can’t wait to hear where she’ll be going next. That is the important part that I try to focus on. Meanwhile, I only have a few steps left in my application for another guide and have been told that it shouldn’t be too long until I am partnered with a dog. I am praying constantly for God to bring that special dog into my life soon. Everything happens in God’s timing but I confess I am selfishly impatient.
Just a couple days ago I was feeling especially sad and lonely but God so purely and bluntly showed his face to me through one of the most profound “God moments” I’ve ever had. I began to cry and pray that God would bring me comfort and bring a new partner in my life. Right away, my room mate’s cat, Bob, jumped up on my lap, put his paws on my chest and rubbed his face against my cheek. It was such a precious moment and I really felt God’s presence with me. Bob has never been so boldly affectionate toward me which made the moment even more special. Immediately afterward, I accidentally hit the play button for the music on my phone. Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” started to play and was followed by Jason Castro’s version of “hallelujah.” Both of these songs have always given me strength and peace in difficult times. I firmly believe that God collaborated with Apple to organize that exact shuffle of songs!!!
Although I am stuck using a cane (which I despise for many reasons) I am trying my best to use this time as an opportunity to grow in confidence. I need to be comfortable using my cane for travel in situations where a guide dog is unavailable. And I also need to be ok with making mistakes and having to “look more blind” in travel. It is a humbling time to say the least but this needs to happen so I can be prepared for anything in the future. I can still connect with people if I’m caning it but it takes more effort than having the natural public attraction to the dog.
In addition to these personal changes, I am slowly getting ready to begin a new year at SPU with exciting commitments and opportunities. One of my goals as Arnett/Emerson Hall Senator is to incorporate tactile art into Arnett Hall,, our brand new residence hall. I am making slow progress on this project and have begun to network with tactile artists and educators. Even if we just get one piece up this year, I see that as a major accomplishment in creating opportunities for inclusion and awareness of our residents’ unique abilities and characteristics. I hope to also begin brainstorming for a new Environmental Stewardship club on campus. It is in the very beginning stages but I’m really excited to work with some incredible people and hopefully get some cool things going on campus.
On the subject of education, I have a pretty exciting opportunity ahead. I’ve decided to enroll in the Northwest School of Animal Massage’s Large Animal Massage Certification Course. The course is taught long distance and concludes with a five day practicum at their facility on Vashon Island in WA. There are no official deadlines for the distance learning piece so I would be able to complete assignments at my own pace. It will take some time to figure out disability services and accommodations I’ll need but I am super excited to start the process!! My hope is to have certification to perform maintenance massage by next summer. And then if that happens, I want to come back to the NAC next summer to work on our therapy horses. Eventually, I hope to be able to have equine massage as a supplemental form of income as I get through school.

With all of this change on the horizon, I know I need to be diligent about embracing all that comes my way and not running from challenges. I have to be engaged with whatever comes in life. I’m determined to live life to the fullest. I would please ask you for your prayers as I go through this time of change. Please be praying that God brings the perfect dog into my life and keeps His faithful hand over me through all of this. I am so beyond grateful for all of the wonderful people in my life who offer so much support and encouragement. I am one blessed lady!! Now its time to get excited and jump in to new adventures!!! Let the games begin!!

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A Heart-Tugging Decision

I like to give my readers a heads-up with my posts if I expect them to be considerably long or different from the usual somehow. I strongly believe that each of my posts (regardless of content) is a reflection of where I am spiritually, emotionally and mentally. I don’t mean that in a mystical way like my words are an expression of my inner-most being influenced by Buddha and The Wizard of Oz or anything like that. But I do try hard to put my heart out there and share my journey with all of it’s successes and struggles despite feeling slightly vulnerable in being so honest. I have faith that God is able to use my story for His purpose. With that said, I am preparing you now that this post will be unexpected for most and you will not fully understand everything but that’s ok. I don’t understand all of it either but God knows every aspect and that is what I’m leaning on right now. Ok, I won’t continue dragging this on into a more suspenseful prelude any longer.

With a heavy heart, I have decided that it is time for Retha to retire as a guide dog.

From the start, Retha has never really been an easy partner to work with but I always thought that was just her sassy and energetic personality. Earlier this year, I began to notice that our guiding was extremely inconsistent. We went back to basics for a few weeks just to reestablish boundaries and expectations and things did improve a bit but we continued to be inconsistent in guiding. Toward the end of May, I reached out to our Guide Dogs for the Blind field service manager and scheduled a time for him to come out and observe our guidework. In the weeks leading up to his visit, I started to realize that Retha may just need to be done as a guide dog. I became more confident in considering her retirement and felt a tugging on my heart that this was the right decision. I have no doubt that God was planting the seed that just needed more time to come to fruition.

When we met with our field service manager, I was fully prepared to retire Retha and begin the process of getting her back to GDB. Our field service manager didn’t see major problems in our guidework but respected my decision to begin the retirement process for Retha. Directly after the meeting, I went straight to my room with Retha and absolutely lost it. Sobbing, I called my wonderful mother for support. She lovingly listened to my blubbering emotions and helped me to think more clearly. At one point, I was sitting on the floor with Retha in front of me as I unloaded my bucket of feelings on my mom. Retha sat down, put her ears back in a worried expression and leaned forward to lick the tears from my cheeks. At that moment, I knew I was not ready to give my baby girl up. I wanted to keep trying. I immediately called our field service manager back and expressed my change of heart. He helped me to come up with a plan of action. We decided to see how the summer went with my internship in Utah and if we needed to revisit the subject then we would.

The summer started out well. Retha could get me to our Dial A Ride stop relatively smoothly and I began to think my earlier thought of retirement was misled. But even with stricter boundaries and an increased workload, our guidework was still inconsistent at best. It was not one specific problem area but more of a lack of reliability. Through discussing the idea of retirement again with an important mentor in my life and with Retha’s puppy raising momma, I have come to the decision that guiding is just not the right job for Retha. She does not excel in guiding and I am not benefiting fully from this relationship. Although there are times where Retha is excited and focused, ultimately she is not happy with this life. Her wellbeing means more to me than anything else and because of that I know she needs a change. And with so many new exciting opportunities on the horizon, I need a partner that is reliable and focused, enabling me to grow in independence rather than create exhaustion with the relationship.

I have had another conversation with our field service manager and he agrees with my decision especially after we gave it a second shot to get on track. Because I feel so strongly now with this choice, I think it is best that we get Retha back to the GDB campus as soon as possible. Both of us need emotional closure and I do not want Retha to feel at any point like she has done something wrong. So I will be bringing Retha back to the Boring, OR campus within the next few days. It is a 26 hour and 1200 mile drive roundtrip from here in Park City, UT but my incredible friend and mentor from the NAC has so graciously offered to drive me there and back. She has even reached out to her own contacts in the area to arrange a place for us to stay so we can break up the drive just a bit. I cannot even begin to explain how grateful and humbled I am to have such support from her. It is the definition of a God given blessing.

Emotionally I am doing better than expected with my decision. I love Retha as a mother would love a child so I feel confident that this needs to happen for her sake more than mine. I believe Retha could have a future career as a drug detection dog or simply be a beautiful addition to an active and engaged family or individual. Having that hope for a better future for her is what drives me to put these wheels in motion (literally!) as soon as possible. I want her to go in for evaluation and move on to a happier life than what she has now. I will miss her dearly and I am sure the tears will flow when it comes to saying goodbye (slightly teary eyed writing that). But not only does God have his hand over me, He has it over the beautiful soul that is Retha too. I am learning to let go and trustingly place her in His hand. She has taught me so much and will bring such light to whoever her new person will be. My initial heart-tugging earlier this year was indeed God’s guiding hand and I am at peace knowing He is in control.

I know you must be wondering what the plan is now as far as getting another guide dog. I have reapplied for training to be paired with another guide. I hope to meet my new partner as soon as possible however I am willing to wait for the right dog to come my way. I know now that I need a very mellow and steady guide and strongly prefer to have a male. My hope would be to have another dog by October or a bit after but as I said, I am willing to wait. God has the right match out there for me and I have absolutely no doubt that it will come through in His timing.

In the meantime, I admit that I will enjoy a bit less responsibility. It will be extremely strange and lonely without Retha but I aim to spend some time focusing on myself both spiritually and physically. I want to be ready whenever the next dog comes.

I promise, this post is almost over!! With all of this happening, I would humbly ask for prayers as we hit the road to OR and Retha and I begin our journeys apart from each other. I trust in God and I trust in the power of prayer.

Thank you so much for reading and for the endless support and encouragement. I appreciate it more than you know. I will have some pictures of Retha and I this summer to follow this post. We have so many happy memories to hold on to.

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