Joni Eareckson Tada Shares Our Story

For the past ten years I’ve been on staff with Joni and Friends, an international ministry founded by Joni Eareckson Tada. It has been amazing to get to know Joni and hear her vision for reaching those with disabilities with the message of hope that Christ offers. Recently, Joni featured my seeing eye dog, Thelma, and I on her daily radio show. She shared a bit of our story and we were  so honored to hear it.

Picture of Joni and I

Take a listen on her blog! Or, if you’d like to read more adventures that Thelma and I have had, check out my blog. I will continue to write, as having a dog as my constant companion always brings unexpected surprises!

Adventure Seven – A First Walk Through the Neighborhood (…and a Thunderstorm)

Now that we are home, learning our neighborhood is very important. My first seeing-eye dog, Velda, passed away two-and-a-half years before I got Thelma, so learning the neighborhood together with Thelma is a new adventure for both of us.

It was a sultry Saturday afternoon. We decided to start learning my route to work. This is a 16-block route, and there are some interesting irregularities on it. We walked down our street, turned right and crossed the corner. Thelma saw the wide expanse of a concrete patio in front of a store and, understandably, treated the whole thing like a sidewalk. Since I didn’t actually want to go into this particular store, I had to show her where I wanted to end up after crossing the street. So we went back across the street and repeated the process, reinforcing to her where the real sidewalk was.

My husband, Ray walked a few feet behind my right shoulder and alerted me to anything he thought I should beware of, such as cracks in the sidewalk caused by a root; construction; lime bikes, etc. Thelma skirted around most of these obstacles or took me past them without difficulty.

A few times I had to stop, show her the obstacle and praise her for seeing it, then take a few steps back and have her walk past it again to reinforce the learning. Then we encountered construction, and it seemed we might need to cross the street to avoid it. After traveling about eight blocks, we decided not to walk to my new office, but instead to turn left and walk to our friends’ house. They were working in their yard when we got there.

We talked for a while and then started the trek home. About three blocks from our house, the rain came and so did the thunder and lightning. Thelma just kept walking without a hitch, and I picked up my pace beside her. Ray almost had to run to keep up with us! When we finally arrived home, we were drenched… but we were safe.

I was glad to know that my dog wasn’t afraid of a little rainstorm. Thelma had already proven that several times in the short time we’d know each other. This was actually the sixth downpour we had traveled through together since our training began three weeks earlier.

We all dried off as best as we could, got a refreshing drink of water, and continued our day. I realized I was truly beginning to trust this four-footed friend of mine more and more. Most of all, though, I trusted in the Lord to keep us safe during our adventures as we learned more about each other’s traveling habits. And I did forget to thank the Lord for my faithful husband, who also invested time in this training.

After that eventful walk, Thelma and I had grown closer together and came away another fun adventure to share with our friends.

Love,

Judy⠠⠚⠥⠙⠽ and Thelma 🐾

Adventure Six with My NEW Four Footed Friend

Hello again from The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey!

After just a few hours sleep, I was awakened by my alarm at 3:00 a.m. This would be the last time I would roll out of bed here at the Seeing Eye School in Morristown, N.J. My Labrador retriever Thelma and I were to leave for the airport with our instructor at 4:30 a.m. Last night we said our goodbyes to staff and classmates. We packed carefully, because we were leaving with more items than we arrived with almost three weeks earlier. Three weeks… I’ve learned so much in that short amount of time, so many memories, met so many new friends, and renewed relationships with instructors who were here when I got my first seeing eye dog, Velda, 12 years ago…

As we drove to the airport, my instructor discussed some airport basics. Because Velda, my first dog, and I had flown at least 25 times together, I already knew the drill. Due to some new airport regulations, however, Thelma and I couldn’t check in at the kiosk. We had to stand in line for personal assistance. Then at security, the agent had to find someone who wasn’t afraid of dogs. Despite these delays, we arrived at my gate in plenty of time.

Persons with disabilities usually are the first to board an aircraft, so Thelma and I proudly followed the airline worker into the jet. After putting our items in the overhead bin, Thelma and I settled in our seat next to the window. I scooted her under the seat in front of me feet-first, so her head was facing me. She shinnied in like a little hot-dog. To avoid discomfort when the airplane took off, I gave Thelma a treat. When we were about to land, I gave her another treat.

During the flight, I had a lively conversation with an evangelist. He had just returned from Africa. It was interesting that he had a disabled son, so he was eager to learn about Joni and Friends.

When we arrived in St. Louis, the customer assistance personnel escorted me to the baggage claim carousel, where we retrieved our luggage. Soon, my husband Ray arrived to welcome us back to hot, muggy St. Louis. Here we would begin a new adventure, learning my home city together. A new dog for me, a new city for her, and a new office for both of us.

That evening, with Ray behind my right shoulder describing objects coming up, the three of us explored a good portion of our neighborhood. Thelma and I certainly had our work cut out for us. It would be no easy task, learning the streets in a ten by ten block area. Learning together how to conquer low-hanging tree limbs, uneven sidewalks, construction and dog distractions. Our neighborhood has them all.

The learning curve would be huge, but we were ready. My wonderful husband and son were ready, too, to help us learn our surroundings. They agreed to kick in as travel assistants.

In the coming weeks we had many exciting challenges ahead of us. Wait till you read about one in our next adventure!

Love,

Judy⠠⠚⠥⠙⠽ and Thelma 🐾

Adventure Five with My NEW Four Footed Friend

Hello again from The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey!

If you are a dog owner, you know that dogs are a big responsibility.

Learning how to take care of a dog’s basic needs is so important. Feeding it just the right amount of healthy dog food, giving it lots of fresh water, and providing it with sufficient exercise helps maintain the dog’s weight, keeps it a happy dog and makes you a happy owner.

For those of us who have working dogs, continuous training and challenge strengthens our team trust. One of the first things my Labrador retriever, Thelma, and I learned was the importance of practicing daily obedience. Just as the Lord desires us to daily feast on His Word, pray and praise Him, so is it important to teach obedience daily with your dog. This keeps its mind sharp and its basic skills active.

Each of us with our dog are encouraged to perform three obedience drills three times each day: come-sit; sit-down; and sit-rest. Grooming the dog’s coat daily keeps its skin oils flowing, its fur shiny and odor free, and eliminates the need for regular bathing. We also work with the dog to establish times for elimination so it will get on a schedule. If something changes in the dog’s pattern, the owner can catch it right away and handle the problem accordingly.

I’m happy Thelma doesn’t mind having her teeth wiped daily with dental wipes. When my classmates and I were taught how to get our dogs to take a pill, she didn’t fight me on that, either.

Our class had lectures on various topics almost daily. Here are a few of the them: the importance of obedience; dog care basics; grooming; tips from the veterinarian; food and appropriate toys; traffic safety; the dog’s senses and how it perceives things; how to travel on an airplane; dog attacks (WHAT ARE DOG ATTACKS?!); going home; and tips for a smooth transition. We also discussed advocacy and our rights as guide dog handlers. We even learned about pet insurance.

One morning, one of my classmates, Shelby, and I went with our instructor to the park to look at the Morris Franck and Buddy sculpture. Morris Franck was the courageous blind insurance salesman who started the Seeing Eye school.  Next year, the school celebrates its 90th year of providing seeing eye dogs to blind persons. As I stood in front of the statue, I thanked the Lord for this man’s tenacity and perseverance. I thought of the thousands like me who had been served by the school because of his persistence.

Twenty of us with our dogs walked to the ice cream shop to have a treat together. It was a celebration of our hard work during the past two and a half weeks. Some dog teams were faster than others, but all made it to the store, went inside and sat down in their places. No dogs barked, no dogs stole any ice cream cones and all enjoyed the fellowship during our last afternoon together. And, as was customary for so many of our adventures, it rained the entire time.

Judy and classmate, Shelbi, with their dogs in the park (Morristown Green)

We were wet walking to the shop but dried off a bit inside as we ate our delectable treats. It felt like we flew home through that pouring rain, showing how much we’d all grown to trust our canine teammates. Were we ever glad to dry off when we got inside. All of us anticipated with excitement our trips home to reunite with our families. We knew leaving the Seeing Eye meant we’d have to start from scratch acclimating our new canine friends to their new permanent homes, but Thelma and I were up to the challenge!

You’ll hear from us again soon.

Love,

Judy⠠⠚⠥⠙⠽ and Thelma 🐾

Adventure Four with My NEW Four Footed Friend

Hello again friends,

Here’s another Adventure with my new 4-footed friend. In this adventure, we are still in training at the Seeing Eye School.

The second route we had to master was the Elm Street route. In my estimation, this route was twice as hard and twice as long as the first one! The traffic was twice as heavy, too, and there were lots of hills on this route. In a couple of spots, we had to teach our dogs how to find the pole that had the button to press that allows us to cross the intersection safely. After the button was pushed and it was time to cross, the speaker on the pole said, “Walk…walk…walk” for a certain amount of seconds so we could cross.

We also had lots of random traffic checks. This is where a car suddenly pulls out of an alley or driveway in front of you. Other dogs were always trying to distract our working dogs, too. My dog kept her head focused on the route and not on the yelping or barking dog. I was so glad of that! We also had to deal with barriers in the sidewalk, such as those to keep you from walking into a hole or through a construction site.

After we passed our solo walk on our second route, we started to do more individualized training. The first thing Thelma and I did was to go to Century 21 department store. We walked several blocks to get to the store. Inside the store, we followed our instructor, who pretended she was the store clerk helping us. We “followed” her throughout the store. This is how “follow” works. If I have a store clerk or friend helping me through the store, I tell my dog “follow”. The person in front of me just talks with me, telling me what we are passing, talking about the weather or anything so I can hear their voice. They may warn me of steps coming up, an escalator, etc. I give the dog its direction based on what my human leader says or does. Even following someone with loud shoes works, if they forget to talk to me.

Anyway, at the store, we took the escalator and both of us, dog and master, learned the skill so the dog’s toes would not get caught in the moving escalator.

We toured a grocery store, too, learning different methods of using the dog with a shopping cart. We went to the pet store and bought a few items, including a dog tag with our dogs’ names and contact info on them. We even took a stroll through the dog food aisles, past the pet clinic, and past the grooming area.

Then we walked a half a mile to the bank. Inside we learned how to maneuver through the crisscrossed line maze to the counter. As you know, these portable line guides are often in airports and other places where many line up. It took a bit, but Thelma finally got it. And I finally got it, too.

Our class of four also went to the mall, about 15 miles away. We individually learned how to find or shop for various things in the mall, per our interest or need. I learned how to teach Thelma where the elevator is with my clicker. The clicker method helps you teach the dog how to find a specific thing like an elevator, a stoplight pole, or your specific chair at lunch. The method has a three step process: association, back-chaining, and completion. Using treats during each step of the process to show and reinforce the behavior you want is essential.

We learned how to travel on country roads. One route had no sidewalks, only curbs. The other was a paved road with gravel on the sides. Each was very different, but on both we used the same technique. It involved using the white cane at times in tandem with your dog to make sure you were walking along the side of the road and not in the middle of it.

The training at the Seeing Eye wouldn’t have been complete without a night hike. My instructor chose a partially familiar route. The 9-block route included finding your way through a parking garage, weaving through pedestrians and outdoor cafes in a busy nightlife section, avoiding overhead tree branches, and other sidewalk obstacles. Crossing the same streets we crossed in daylight was different, too. Traffic patterns changed and sometime the street traffic was so quiet it was hard to get a good reading on when to cross. It was a great adventure, and we both enjoyed it emensely.

The Seeing Eye campus itself had a leisure path. It contained hills, valleys, turns and even two gazebos where we could sit and relax, enjoying the fresh Morristown spring time air. It was also designed so we could walk with our dogs without assistance, giving us more training in how to work as a team. Check out our pictures.

Until next time…

Judy⠠⠚⠥⠙⠽ and Thelma 🐾

Adventure Three with My NEW Four Footed Friend

Hello again from Morristown, New Jersey.

If you couldn’t see, and you had to team up with your dog to walk to a certain bus stop, take the bus to the train station, and ride the train to another destination, what preparations would you make? Close your eyes and imagine…. What thoughts fears, or emotions might you have? Or, would you consider the trip a huge adventure and go for it?

On a beautiful, Sunny day, two of us left with our instructor to practice the bus and metro link with our dogs. We walked about four blocks and waited at the bus stop for the bus. Our instructor gave us some direction, and when it finally came, we hopped on and found our seats close to the driver. We tucked our dogs under the seats, putting one foot on our leash, holding the leash loop in our hand, our dogs’ heads and front legs firmly between our legs. During the 15 minute ride to the train station, my thoughts flashed back to a time when Velda, my first Seeing Eye dog and I were riding the bus. When I started to get off the bus I realized Velda’s harness was half off. Somehow, she had begun wiggling out of it under the seat. I had to quickly put it back in place, buckle it again, and exit the bus. We were safe, and I learned a valuable lesson– Always be aware of what my dog is doing.

When we arrived at our stop, we got off the bus and walked several blocks to the station. With the aid of our dogs, and instructions from our instructor, K.O., We found the stairs and took them to the platform. After climbing to the platform, K.O. showed us where the train would come. In fact, she asked us to face the track, with our dog, and tell the dog to “hup up”. Our dogs did not budge. That’s because if they would have, we would have fallen onto the track several feet below. If we have pushed their harnesses to make them go, we could have been seriously injured. Another valuable lesson—K.O. reminded us we are the navigators, our dogs are our guides. We can’t just put our dogs on auto pilot and think they will take us where we need to go. The train came, we got on, found our seats and our dogs lay at our feat, their leashes securely under our foot and loops in our hand. At our destination, we got off, and walked joyfully back to our starting point. Mission accomplished, and new skills under our belts. Here’s our picture at the metro link station.

Another adventure with my NEW four-footed friend. You’ll hear from us again, soon.

Love,

Judy⠠⠚⠥⠙⠽ and Thelma 🐾

Adventure Two with My NEW Four Footed Friend

Hello from Morristown New Jersey. We’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to send you any new adventures until now.

Let me tell you about our team. As I mentioned in the previous adventure, there are 21 students in our class. We have four persons in our team with one instructor.

We ate meals together the first week, and we work together as a team, in pairs, or separately with our instructor for the duration of the training. Training for those who have already been Seeing Eye dog handlers is 17 days. New students get an additional week, either at the school or in their home town.

On Wednesday, when we received our dogs, we spent time getting to know them individually in our rooms. After lunch, we started on our first route. This was a 9 block route in downtown Morristown. Each of us went individually with our instructor to learn the route. We walked the route with dog and instructor 5 more times in subsequent days, familiarizing ourselves with it. Our instructor gave less instructions each time. We concentrated on traffic flow, both parallel and perpendicular. We learned which streets had controlled lights, and which had none. As our trust grew in each other, the route became easier and we began to enjoy the sounds of spring and fresh Morristown air as we walked swiftly along.

On Sunday, in the pouring rain, we soloed our route. That means we did it on our own, with our instructor following at a distance, only giving instruction if our lives were in danger. Thelma and I could not avoid the 3 inch puddle at the beginning of one street crossing. We also got unexpected traffic checks, when a car came out of a driveway in front of us. A block further, we politely stopped to let passengers get out of their car and go into a building next to us. We then continued on our way. As we turned the corner onto our last street, we increased our pace anticipating our route’s end. We turned left into the alley. Soon, I told Thelma “left, left”. Obeying, in a bit, Thelma stopped and her nose was right under the door handle. I gave her lots of praise as I had become accustomed to doing. We went inside, wet, but triumphant. What was a little water when you together conquered the challenge? Maybe, just maybe, this yellow lab would walk with me another 6,000 miles like Velda did!

Another adventure with my NEW four-footed friend. You’ll hear from us again, soon, and a picture.

Love,

Judy⠠⠚⠥⠙⠽ and Thelma 🐾

Adventure One with My NEW Four Footed Friend

As I flew to New Jersey on Monday to spend the next 18 days training at the Seeing Eye School with my new dog, I remembered 12 years ago when I made the same trek. It was in March then and a bit colder. The same excitement flooded me then that surged through me on Monday. What would my new dog be like? Would she be like Velda, who served me for 9 and ¾ years? Would she be a lab, or a golden retriever, or a German Shepherd, or a cross lab golden?

Upon arriving at the airport, a rep from the Seeing Eye met me and introduced me to the other student riding back with us to Morristown N.J. On the ride back, Nolan and I chatted about our families, lives, and our dogs. Our instructors met us at the door, took us to our rooms, and helped us get oriented to it. I was even more amazed this time. The dorm had been renovated and there was Braille everywhere, including building lay-out maps. I remembered the raised wooden terrain street map they had last time so we could figure out our walking routs prior to taking them. I couldn’t wait to explore those maps again. We all ate a delicious lunch together. Other students had arrived already and some of them joined us for lunch.

Soon it was time for my Juno walk. This is when my instructor pretended she was the dog. She took the other end of my leash and the harness. She walked on my left, alongside me just like a dog would. She’d vary the pull and pace in order to solidify which dog would be the best match for me. Over the next day and a half, each of us 21 students did 4 Juno walks in all. We were divided into groups of 4 and each group was assigned an instructor. We eat together, have individualized training together and more. We also have class lectures, every evening.

Wednesday morning after breakfast, we received our dogs. Mine is a yellow lab with honey highlights. She’s the same size as Velda was when I got her in March, 2006. She’s a fun-loving dog who loves to serve. We did our first 8 block trip in downtown Morristown. Right now, as I’m writing this, she is sleeping in her crate after a long, exhausting day.

Since our day tomorrow begins at 5:30 a.m. I’m signing off, too. Will write more soon.

Love,

Judy⠠⠚⠥⠙⠽ and Thelma 🐾

Going Back Through Yesteryear

This weekend I got a tub of old goodies out of the garage and set my sights on the dozens of floppy disks I found inside. Yes, floppy disks. For you millennials reading who have no clue what I’m talking about, floppy disks are 3 and a half inch square disks that hold 1.2 meg of data. They were used in the 90’s and preceded the CD (compact disk). For those of you in Generation Z who might be reading and wondering what a CD is… just Google it.

After pulling out my (seldom) handy external floppy disk drive, there were a few great “finds.” One was a paper my daughter had written in 2002, and the other a the book I started in 1996… 21 years ago. Wow! How had I forgotten all about it? And why hadn’t I finished it? My sister, Donna, edited it and gave me additional suggestions for improvement. Those two files made the cut, the rest didn’t.

Who knew I’d find those two gems when uncovering the box of junk in the garage. I felt a sense of accomplishment. Who knows, maybe this book might actually end up getting finished.

What are some old treasures you have laying around? I have phonograph records (in 3 sizes), reel to reel tapes, floppy disks, cassette tapes, mini disks, beta tapes, VCR tapes, CD’s, flash drives, floppy drives, etc… not to further date myself.

What criteria do you use in deciding what to save and what to discard? Leave a comment. Let me know your thoughts! Your creative strategy could help liberate those of us who “save” thinking our kids will appreciate all we leave behind. In reality, how many commercial sized dumpsters are rented to haul away one’s “fine treasures” when they are gone, leaving their kids too overwhelmed to sift through them?

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How do you feel when you are asked to do something that reflects one of your life’s passions? Does excitement well up within you? Does it confirm in you that you’re making a difference? Does it cause everything else in your life to become a little more bearable? That’s what happens to me. I can climb a higher mountain, go the extra mile.

When I was recently asked to be part of the KSIV Encounter radio show team, I knew the Lord was opening a door specifically for me. Bringing people thought provoking content, and helping folks tell their stories exhilarates me.

Listen to our Encounter team every weekday at 1:30 p.m. on KSIV Radio 1320 AM in the metro St. Louis area.

Listen online for interviews that will make you think, stories that will inspire and uplift you, and current events shared from a Christian World View. For questions about Encounter hosts or show topics, call KSIV Radio, 314-961-1320. Subscribe to my web site to get notified when new interviews are posted.

What is YOUR passion, and what are you doing to pursue your dreams?