Some weeks ago I wrote at Huffington Post about several guide dog schools in the United States that have been cutting veteran staff, an alarming thing, and something that dismays blind people who travel with professionally trained service dogs. I care about the people who train guide dogs and the folks who support that mission. I wrote:
"If you're blind and travel with a guide dog you count on veteran staff: folks who know the complex and challenging circumstances of vision loss and safe mobility. Moreover you want to be assured those who work with you -- support you -- are being taken care of."
Then I wrote something else:
"Now "Guiding Eyes for the Blind" -- the guide dog school from which I've received three guide dogs, and where I once worked, where in fact I played a role in hiring some extraordinary people, has announced summarily, without warning, they're eliminating their retirement benefits plan in favor of a second rate 403B."
I made a mistake. I learned this by speaking with Guiding Eyes new CEO and President, Tom Panek, who, like me is a guide dog user and is committed to excellence in the field of service dog work. The retirement plan changes at Guiding Eyes were neither hasty nor second rate. Tom, who is a serious advocate for the disabled has assured me that under the new plan, senior staff will actually benefit as contributions rise from 5% to 14% based on years of service. This is a big deal because the plan seeks to reward devoted service. Additionally Guiding Eyes continues to have a very generous medical plan.
Tom and I had a great conversation. We discussed the fact that there's a lot of fear among non-profit employees generally, and, given the layoffs I described at other guide dog schools, people are frightened.
The retirement plan at my beloved guide dog alma mater is not a source for fear. In fact it even allows same sex couples to designate benefits.
I'm writing this today in mid December because there are some good things in guide dog land. And because it costs nearly $40,000 to breed, raise, and train each guide dog, let me close by saying this is a good season to support the kind of charitable and humanitarian work I've described.
In a few short months I will publish a new memoir with Simon and Schuster. It's about my life with my first guide dog " Corky" and it details the remarkable gift-a daily gift-that a guide dog really is. Here is how I describe our first meeting:
"She entered like a clown. I sat in an arm chair and they told me to call her and damned if she didn't run full steam into my arms. She placed her front paws on my shoulders and washed my face and then, as if she knew her job would require comedy, she nibbled my nose but gently like a horse looking for a peppermint. She gave me just the slightest touch of her teeth. Later I'd learn from the family who raised her she was famous for the "nosey nibble" but I felt special and laughed--it felt like the first laugh I'd had in years. Corky had comedy in her veins."
"She was brilliant and silly. I couldn't believe my fortune. Back in our room Corky licked my eyes. She wanted me to invite her on the bed. I told her to remember the rules. Dogs on the floor, people on the beds. The trainers had been clear about guide dog etiquette and I was going to follow the regimen. Guide dogs aren't encouraged to climb on the furniture. "You stay on the floor," I said, and she nibbled my nose again as if to say, "I'll wear you down brother." I saw in our first moments we were having the manifold dance of relationship--we were joyous and communicating. I talked in a running wave. She bounced, literally bounced, cocked her head, backed up, ran in circles, and came back. All the while I kept talking. "Oh let's go any place we choose," I said, feeling I was on the verge of tears."
I like Tom Panek. Like me he believes we should go anywhere we choose.