Volunteers help clients through grief at Guide Dogs for the Blind
When Colleen Madigan had to say goodbye to her beloved guide dog after an unexpected death, the pain and grief was unimaginable.
It was more than the sorrow of losing a beloved pet — something all have faced. Nectarine, a 55-pound peppy black Labrador who took on each day with a furiously wagging tail, was literally Madigan's guide through the world. As a trained service dog, Nectarine led her around obstacles, brought her to and from places, and helped avoid the pitfalls that the visually impaired face.
"She was my little race car, we just hit it off," Madigan said with a laugh. "It was an exceptional partnership — love at first sight."
So losing Nectarine was nearly unbearable.
"You hand over the harness that connected us, and that is when the profound, deep grief really hits," she said.
About 6 months after losing her first partner, Madigan found a solution that would help her move on. She decided to give back to the nonprofit organization that had connected the two in the first place, joining the ranks of dedicated, passionate volunteers who help keep Guide Dogs for the Blind humming along.
"I wanted to be connected and give back," she said. "I could share my time, energy and effort."
"Colleen was the perfect fit for Guide Dogs," said Bonnie Shoffner, volunteer engagement specialist.
After delays during the pandemic, Madigan now serves an integral role at the Boring campus. She helps new clients during their room orientations for the two-week matching process, and works in the commissary every Friday. As a client herself, Madigan also serves as a key connection for the folks seeking out a guide dog.
"A few weeks ago I spoke with someone who was hurting after losing their dog," Madigan said. "I knew what she was going through, so we were able to share in that grief and support one another."
"The key is to help them unload some of those emotions," she added. "To show them its ok to let go of that harness handle."
Village of volunteers
It takes a village of volunteers to raise a puppy — at least when that furry friend is destined to help guide a visually impaired partner through the world.
"A guide dog provides the courage for someone to step out and live their life," said Chris Benninger, CEO and president of Guide Dogs.
According to Guide Dogs for the Blind, it takes about 251 volunteers to help a single puppy become a fully-trained guide dog. And with a campus in Boring, many of those dedicated individuals live locally.
Volunteers prepare the dogs for a life of service. They serve in various capacities on campus, from their homes, and virtually. Volunteers help with administrative work, on-campus programs, as puppy raisers, walkers, meal services, and more.
"Our volunteers are integral for us matching clients with these wonderful dogs," Shoffner said.
There are about 400 volunteers with Guide Dogs — 100 in Oregon and 300 at the larger California campus. There are also about 2,000 volunteer puppy raiser families on the west coast, who care for and provide experiences for the dogs until they begin their formal training at 17 months.
"We could not provide this level of service without our volunteers," Shoffner said.
Guide Dogs for the Blind is a common sight in downtown Gresham as the neighborhood streets have proven a great place for lessons. The group does not charge clients for being paired with a dog and operates without government dollars. Instead the nonprofit organization relies solely on donations and that robust volunteer system.
The group is always in need of more volunteers.
"We have volunteer shifts daily, weekly, once a month — whatever works for each person," Shoffner said.
One of the crucial services is as foster care providers, which is whenever an adult guide dog is in need of a temporary home during a recuperation or vacation. An example is when Madigan went on a two week vacation to Hawaii and was unable to bring her guide dog, whom did not enjoy being left in the kennel. There are needs for daily foster care or commuter care, which is when a foster family will bring the dogs to school every day in Boring.
"It is a really great way for people to support our program and help care for these dogs," said April Hedlund, guide dog mobility trainer. "Everyone here is unified in our mission of making lives easier."
Another critical need for the nonprofit organization is volunteer drivers. They not only pick up new clients from the airport and the Gresham Station Transit Center to bring them to the Boring campus, but also help fellow volunteers arrive safely.
Madigan, who lives in Milwaukee, is thankful for the drivers who take her to and from the campus because it avoids the long and difficult journey via public transit and ride shares.
"That was a barrier for me getting to volunteer here," she said. "But our drivers have been a big help."
This is Guide Dogs for the Blind's 80th anniversary, and everyone at the organization is quick to push all the credit for that incredible milestone toward volunteers like Madigan.
"I have been really touched by all our volunteers, I am so grateful for what they do," Shoffner said.
Madigan said when she first worked with a guide dog, during a 2010 event with the Oregon Commission for Blind, it changed her life.
She had been a white cane user, but walking with a dog was a completely new experience.
"It was like flying," she said with a laugh. "You avoid obstacles rather than locate them."
She was hooked, and had a wonderful 10 years with Nectarine. And though that grief was profound, and the idea of being rematched was difficult, volunteering and being around others having their lives similarly changed helped.
So during her time as a volunteer, Madigan was paired with her second guide dog in 2020.
Going into the process she had this list of preferences — she wanted a pup similar to Nectarine, a female black lab with some zip in her step.
"But instead I was surprised by Ted," she said with a fond smile.
Ted is a three-year-old Golden Retriever who has made an art of the power nap. He loves to sneak in a quick snooze. He is laid-back, calming, and has kind eyes. He is also photogenic — finishing third in a recent competition. And most importantly, when it comes to guiding Madigan, he is diligent and hardworking.
"He has been a wonderful partner," she said.
Donate or sign up to volunteer with Guide Dogs for the Blind online at guidedogs.com
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