By Maggie Beamguard
Navigating the world and its ups and downs can be a challenge for most people, but when you have impaired vision and can’t see it, the world can be even more daunting.
Helping visually impaired children maneuver through life is the mission of Mira, a Pinehurst-based nonprofit that provides guide dogs at no charge to visually impaired American children, ages 11-16.
Guide dogs replace the white cane and provide a smoother form of mobility for those who work with them. The dogs are specially bred by Mira and highly trained. Their dogs are a mix between the Labrador and the Bernese Mountain Dog called Labernese.
The forgiving and loving nature of the Labrador and the easy-going and people-pleasing Bernese Mountain Dog combine to create a dog that has the patient and obedient temperament and intelligence needed for a good guide dog. The Labernese start working around age two and then retire around age ten, giving them a working life-span of eight years.
The children also go through a vigorous process to be accepted into the program. “It’s hard. It takes a really special kid to be able to get a dog and care for it and to be responsible for it,” said Richard Chatham, Mira’s executive director.
The children are the only ones allowed to interact with the dogs, and parents are not allowed to help them. “It takes a really mature, independent, responsible and motivated child to be able to do this,” he said.
For those children who meet the high evaluation bar, they can experience a new kind of freedom. Guide dogs can be trained to assist with many functions most of us take for granted.
Bob Bailey, the founder of Mira in the United States trained his dog to guide him to his post office box in Southern Pines.
One child who had a passion for conservation taught her dogs to find outdoor trash cans so she could make sure to throw her trash away. Her dog could also locate Starbucks and could identify everyone in her family.
Guide dogs also learn things that are challenging for some humans, such as getting on and off escalators. Chatham took some video of the dogs impressively practicing how to ride moving stairs in a “doggy carousel” exercise during a recent trip to the Canadian training facilities.
Accompanying Chatham on his trip were two orientation and mobility specialists who instruct blind people how to navigate in the sighted world. The two instructors were not familiar with guide dogs, but they had the opportunity to understand how guide dogs work with children.
“We were able to educate them on that, and then they can work with these kids at home so they are prepared to receive their guide dog and to work with them after,” said Chatham.
The cost for training the dogs and the children is steep, requiring specialized facilities. The total cost runs around $70,000, or about $750 a month over the dog’s working life.
Chatham shares that one of the organization’s first students has gone on to law school and is now opening her own law firm in Raleigh. She credits Mira and her guide dog with getting her to where she is today.
Mira is currently working with six children from across the country and has secured funding for four of them. A local, specialized training facility is also in the planning stages. It would provide the children and dogs more flexibility.
Proceeds from the upcoming, third annual Mira Music Festival will go toward helping meet the needs of the children.
Josh Daniel and Friends will headline the event at Rubicon Farm in West End on Saturday, Sept. 30. Gates for the music festival open at 1:30 p.m.; general admission tickets run $15-$25 (children under 12 are free).
Bring a chair or blanket for comfort. Premium tickets ($100/$750 for table for 8) are available with reserved seating at table, charcuterie board, near-gate parking and more.
Daniel is a North Carolina singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Blending rock ‘n’ roll with bluegrass, funk, and soul music with a reggae backbeat, you never know which way he will lead the crowd. He will be joined at the Mira Music Festival by Justin Clyde Williams and Matt Parks, The Simpletones and Whiskey Pines.
New this year, several vendors will be onsite at the music festival, in addition to food and drink provided by Hatchet Brewing Company, James Creek Cider House, Cousins Maine Lobster, Dawg Wagon and Cookies ‘N’ Moore.
Event sponsors include First Bank, Hatchet Brewing Co., and Rubicon Farm, with additional sponsorships. For more information or tickets, visit miraevents.org.
Contact Maggie Beamguard at email@example.com.