BY MAGGIE BEAMGUARD
When children can’t see the world around them, Mira Foundation USA is there to make the world easier to navigate.
The non-profit is the only organization in the United States whose purpose is to provide guide dogs to blind American children ages 11-16.
“We fill a little niche that nobody else does,” said executive director Richard Chatham. “Sixteen years old is the age where the adult guide dog schools in the United States start serving the visually impaired.”
From the administrative office located in Pinehurst, Mira USA partners with sister organization Mira Canada.
“We send the kids up to Canada and they stay on campus for the entire month. It’s a complete facility up there,” Chatham said, “just like you would imagine any school, specialized for people with disabilities.” Mira Canada has been the preeminent guide dog school in the world when it comes to working with children for 40 years.
When the Canadian border shut down during the pandemic, the need for such a facility in the United States became urgent.
“With the pandemic we basically couldn’t place any dogs,” said Catham. “But we think if we had a facility here, it would have not had this great of an effect on us.”
Through fundraising efforts and community support, Mira USA hopes to build a service dog school for American children in North Carolina. The upcoming Farm Fest on October 9 at Rubicon Farms (570 Rubicon Road in West End) will benefit this endeavor.
The music festival features five bands and performers for the advance entry price of $20 or day-of-show price of $25. A limited number of VIP tickets are available.
“The Barefoot Movement is our headline band, and they are absolutely fantastic,” Chatham said. “Their harmony is great.” Joining the line up will be Tyler Millard based in Raleigh who has a visual impairment. Rack & Pinion from Seven Lakes/West End will play along with Emmanuel Winter from Charlotte, and Zoe Cummins from Nashville.
“Basically you’re getting to listen to five bands for the price of one,” said Chatham.
The gates open at noon, and the event runs from 12:30-7:30 p.m. Food trucks will be there all day along with wine, beer and cider for purchase. The event also features a raffle for hard to find and rare bourbons. Tickets and event information are available at miraevents.org.
Chatham is counting on community support to grow this event and hopes the low admission price will encourage folks to participate.
“Our facility will cost more than we can raise with this event,” he said. “We’d like to get the community participation going to start with and hopefully grow the event. And if people can’t come, of course we love donations.” Volunteers are also welcome.
Once the facility is built, Chatham foresees being able to expand services.
“When training a guide dog, you get dogs that don’t qualify to be a guide dog, but might qualify as another type of service dog, such as a mobility assistance dog which would hepps somebody who had difficulty walking or autism assistance dogs.” The organization’s priority would remain the children it serves.
Until the dream of a local training school becomes a reality, Mira USA will continue to pair American children with dogs at Mira Canada. It’s an intensive process involving applications and multiple evaluations to determine whether a child will be a good match for a guide dog. “It’s a very detailed, very complex process,” Chatham said. “And to pair a blind individual with their dog is very expensive. The whole process costs from $65-75,000 per pairing. That’s why we only do three to four a year.”
There is currently a waiting list. The pandemic delayed placements and after two years, Mira USA and Canada are working to get caught up as fast as possible.
Chatham says the most rewarding part of working with Mira USA is when the children receive their guide dog.
“We’ve had children describe the feeling of independence it gives them as what a sighted child must feel when they turn 16 and they are able to get a car and drive.”
Guide dogs can also relieve the isolation often experienced by those with visual impairment. “The white cane that is associated with a blind person is a stigma for them. If a child is walking down the street with a white cane, people don’t know what to do. They part the waters and don’t interact with the child,” said Chatham.
The guide dogs become an icebreaker. “When children have a guide dog in place of the cane, people are more willing to interact with them. It totally changes their lives.”
Contact Maggie Beamguard at email@example.com.