Navigating the darkness
Robert Baillie says he hasn’t always spent his days living in darkness. In fact, just five years earlier Baillie was your typical North Carolina citizen with perfect adequate vision. Things changed, however.
Baillie went in for bypass surgery in 2007 and after several complications and a repeat of the surgery Baillie woke up to a world of darkness. The surgery had cut off the blood supply to his eyes and Baillie will never see again.
“The first year was extremely difficult,” Baillie said. “I had considered lead therapy many times but my wife got me through it.”
Baillie said that a friend who practices neurosurgery in Canada and also has a blind daughter reached out to him with support. The surgeon’s daughter lost her eyesight 30 years earlier at the age of 14 and she wanted to reassure Baillie that this wasn’t the end of the world; he could still lead a happy life without the use of his eyes.
“She convinced me to go to Canada to get my first guide dog, Devin,” Baillie said.
MIRA is a Canadian organization that trains and pairs guide dogs with blind individuals in need of mobility. It is also the only guide dog organization that will provide guide dogs to children under the age of 16. Baillie said that after he spent some time in the program training with Devin he realized how special MIRA was.
“I became good friends with the founder of MIRA Canada,” Baillie said. “They’ve been there for 31 years and he’s the only guy in the world who trains guide dogs for children. I checked around in the states and I did find out that there was no one here who provided guide dogs for children and I thought I’m going to do this.”
This realization for a need in the United States sparked a fire in Baillie and he set out to change the lives of blind youth in America. MIRA USA received its license in February of 2009. The first two dogs were provided in 2010. In 2011, MIRA USA was able to provide six dogs to blind children and this year they plan to supply four guide dogs. They plan to have eight guides dogs paired with children in 2013.
“MIRA and these kids definitely became an inspiration for me,” Baillie said. “It doesn’t bother [the children] to be blind and I haven’t figure that one out yet. I’ve got more years behind me than I have in front of me but these kids have their whole lives in front of them and I know what the dog does for me and I know what it can do for the kids. We’ve got the proof right now.”
In order to receive a guide dog, children and their families must fill out an application around the months of Feb. and April. Evaluations and dog training begins in March. The children are sent to a training facility in Canada where they spend two weeks without their family or any visitors. This is called the bonding process.
“That dog is going to be responsible for the child’s life,’ Baillie said. “So the bonding process is very important.”
Baillie said that it takes children six days a week working from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for one month in order to train the dogs appropriately. The children are then allowed to take their dogs home where they will travel with them everywhere. The dogs are event trained to take the children to their classroom with the child only having to say the academic subject that they need to go to.
“These dogs truly are like our angels,” Baillie said. “Not just in the lives of the children they guide but their classmates, teachers and community. It makes these people not afraid to meet and talk to these blind children.”
Baillie said that his blindness left him feeling ostracized from his community but when his guide dog Devin entered his life he felt that he re-entered society.
“You lose all kinds of personal relationships and people don’t talk to you,” Baillie said. ‘With the dog it starts conversations. They don’t really talk to me, they talk to my dog but that’s OK because it brings me back into the community.”
Baillie said that he lost his beloved Devin in August of this year and was overwhelmed with the outpouring of support he received from his community and everyone who knew Devin.
“We received over 100 sympathy cards, about 400 emails and four huge bouquets of flowers,” Baillie said. “That’s a dog we’re talking about. For me it was a lot more than a dog; it was my life and my mobility. For the community it was a dog. He touched so many people.”
Baillie received another guide dog named DJ just a few weeks ago and he says that while there is still a hole in his heart from the loss of Devin, he has high hopes for his relationship with DJ.
“I love DJ; he’s great but he has a big set of paws to fill,” Baillie said. “He’s doing a great job though. We’ve only been together for a few weeks but he’s just been fantastic and I’m sure that he’s going to be another Devin. He’s super with people, he loves kids and he’s great with me.”
Today, when Baillie is not working with blind children as they go through the process of applying for and training their new guide dog, he tours the country speaking to elementary school classes about awareness of the blind residents in their community.
On Oct. 5, Baillie spoke to Yadkinville Elementary School first graders about what it’s like to go through a world without this vital sense. His most important message to them was to make sure they spoke to a blind person if they saw them in passing.
“These kids are very young and they aren’t going to absorb everything I said but they’re going to think about it,” Baillie said. “They’re going to think about it when they see a blind person on the street and half of them are going to go and talk to the person and if that’s the only thing that I have accomplished then I have done my job and that’s really cool.”
Reach Lindsay Craven at 679-2341 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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