Mary Doyle and son Sean with assistance dog, Lynx PICTURE: TONY KEANE
He has completely changed my life, he is pure joy and everybody loves him,” beams Kim Murphy as she gives Jango a big hug.
With big brown eyes and a happy grin, this adorable guide dog has given this Athy lady a remarkable sense of freedom.
“ I lost my sight three years ago within the space of two weeks and I had to learn to use the white cane,” she says.
“Since I got Jango, I am a different person. He has given me the confidence and comfort. I found when I had the cane, people treated me differently, as if I had lost my hearing as well.
“Jango is very sociable and he is an attraction in himself. People come up to pet him. I found it very very lonely when I lost my sight. I was isolated.”
Kim explains how couldn’t go anywhere on her own.
“Now I can get into the shops no problem, he knows where the items are in the supermarket and he helps me find them. It’s the small things like that make a big difference.”
Kim is one of a number of people gathering in Naas for a Kildare Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind Awareness Day in Kavanagh's.
The local association has raised over €1m over the past 28 years in the mid Kildare region.
The driving force behind this campaign is Phil Geoghan — a whirlwind of enthusiasm and infectious warmth. A well known face in Naas, Phil worked at the former Superquin for years.
She recalls how Claire De Burgh persuaded herself and her husband Tom to get involved in the guide dogs back in May 1989 .
“I just love it — the opportunity to help somebody. It’s a different ball game when someone loses their eye sight compared to when someone is born blind,” she explains.
“I started out as treasurer and we set up a branch in Newbridge and then Monasterevin and Athy. We would love if more people would come on board to help out. We are always looking for volunteers. We just do collections at supermarkets and flag days,” she says.
One of Phil's volunteers, Cecilia Semple from Newbridge knows first hand the difference an assistance dog can make. Her daughter Kelly (13) has Autism .
“We got Duchess when Kelly was six. She has ASD and is a flight risk. Before we got Duchess, we couldn’t go places,” explains Cecilia,
“A strap attaches to Kelly and there is a handle so I can walk along with the dog. If Kelly goes to run away, the dog splays and stands. Duchess knows when its going to happen.
“She just brings down the anxiety levels. Kelly also has a sensory processing disorder. There is such a bond between them.”
Cecilia explains how it took a while for them to get used to each other. Kelly and her mum went to the Guide Dogs headquarters in Cork for a week for training.
“Duchess does not ask Kelly to speak, or put any onus on her to do anything. It’s constant. It's safe. Everyone loves Duchess. It has been very rewarding and without the guide dogs, our lives would be completely different, that’s why we help out,” stresses Cecilia.
Kelly was on the waiting list for two and a half years. Children older than the age of ten are not included as experience has proven that the relationship works better when they are paired earlier.
Cecilia Semple, her daughter Kelly and her assistance dog, Dutchess
Irish Guidedogs for the Blind Corporate Partnerships Manager, John Burke points out it costs €53,000 to raise and train each dog from birth to death.
They train for two years, and are raised by volunteer puppy raisers. Then they work for eight years before retiring. They tend to stay with their family with some becoming ambassador dogs, involved in awareness campaigns and fundraising.
Fifteen per cent of the funding for the guide dog programme comes from Government — the rest from fundraising and private donations.
“I would like to thank Phil and Tom for all the work they have done over the years. I have been blown away by the generosity of the people of Kildare, and the volunteers of guide dogs. It’s such a positive experience to come here today and meet these people,” adds John.
Birte McGaley from Naas is currently waiting on a new guide dog after her dog Fran retired. She said she couldn’t part with any of the guide dogs she has had.
“I have to cope with the cane at the moment and I am finding it very difficult, especially bringing my daughter to school,” she says.
Marion Mahon, who also lives in Naas, uses the white cane. She highlights other valuable services offered by the association.
“The service they offer is second to none. I lost my sight in 2012,” she says.
She explains how she went to Cork to do the Independent Living course, which provided practical advice on day to day living.
“I found it very lonely and isolating but then you get down there, and you meet everyone, and they are in the same boat. You just get on with it. The courses are free of charge. They were brilliant,” she says.
Mary Doyle got Lynx when her son, Sean (10) was six years old.
“He is just brilliant. Sean is non verbal and he is going to Saplings School in Kill,” she says. Mary explains he is great for walking with him and soothing him, especially while out and about.
“Sean is a lot more calmer. If he is having a bad day, Lynx will go over and give him the paw until Sean takes it. The assistance dogs are amazing. It makes him more sociable.”
Anyone who would like to volunteer to help out at flag days, organise a fundraiser or become a puppy raiser can contact Phil on 087 9307790.
Phil Geoghan, Mary Doyle, Bierta McGaley, Marian Mahon, Kim Murphy, Nick Palmer, John Burke, and Tom Geoghan at the Kildare Irish Guidedogs for the Blind awareness day at Kavanagh's in Naas last month