Leader Dogs for the Blind allows the blind and visually impaired a chance at independence and confidence. That’s creating a snowball effect as one Leader og pushes her owner to inspire others to have that independence and confidence too.
“I said look at me, you know I’m out and about, there are so many resources out there for you. You have your counselors and your parents and believe me it’s not the end of the world, your life is going to be ok,” Leader Dog owner Jeff Hawkins said.
It’s the message Hawkins shares with people young and old as he travels the country candidly sharing how his life as a thrill seeking paramedic grew darker and darker day by day.
“I was diagnosed with a juvenile form of macular degeneration called Stargardt disease,” he said. “My life literally closed from the point where I was walking from window to window in the daytime and not even wanting to go out to the mailbox. So, I got in a very dark place, just absolutely lost who I was.”
That’s when he called Leader Dogs for the Blind and that’s where he found Grace.
“And then the story gets so much happier,” Hawkins said. “I found the guy that I lost so many years ago and I’m not afraid to go or do anything anymore like I used to be.”
Six years later Hawkins and his Leader Dog Gracie are an inseparable, unstoppable pair.
“When I got Gracie, I got the confidence to live the way I lived and that means that I’ve always been an avid water skier, snow skier, I’m out west skiing, we just recently started backpacking, wilderness backpacking which I had to sort of adapt Gracie and adapt on some of these wilderness trails and paths and we do a ton of traveling,” he said.
Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills is one of only nine guide dog organizations in the country. Leader Dogs for the Blind teaches 200 clients and their dogs every year.
“That’s just what she was meant to do and she does it perfectly,” Hawkins said.
Now Hawkins and Gracie are determined to share their message of hope and restoration and teach team building, trust, empowerment and communications to businesses throughout Michigan through a workshop called Harness the Power of Leadership.
“We’ve created this one day seminar that includes you walk a couple times blindfolded with a dog and some other non-verbal skill team building things, it’s just a one day seminar on leadership and we’re getting lots of great feedback,” Hawkins said.
A new ‘leash’ on a new life, filled with Grace.
“There are some nights I’m done for the night and I’m sitting back and I know what Gracie’s done for me, either helped me get somewhere or not step in front of a car,” Hawkins said. “Even now, I’ll get a little glassy eyed.”