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environments,” Herda said. His first guide dog was named Chucker. Taking him everywhere from grocery shopping, running daily errands and even to church, Herda and Chucker were inseparable for more than a year. “The puppies are so cute when they’re that little – people wanted to pet him every place I took him,” Herda said. But then the day came to say goodbye. A few months ago, he returned Chucker to the facility for the final stages of training. “That was harder to do than putting my own dog down last year when it was sick,” Herda said. But Chucker would go on to become a star. He was one of four dogs that recently debuted in a movie with Burt Reynolds that was filmed on the guide dog campus in Palmetto. Called “And Then There Was Light,” it is a story about a champion horseback rider named Aliwho lost her vision after an accident. In the movie her mother takes her to Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto, where Reynolds is a trainer. The film is scheduled to be released later this year. Herda, along with his newest guide dog, “Rob B,” are often seen walking around Boca Grande to expose the dog to new sights, scents and sounds. Look for Herda on Park Avenue with a cute little golden retriever wearing a dark blue vest. Herda’s affiliation with the organization doesn’t just end with the dogs. He and his wife Lisa recently got married on the serene guide dog campus. The couple met 10 years ago, and Lisa is a co-trainer for the dogs. Southeastern Guide Dogs opens its gates to the public daily to share their mission, and in fact is the only guide dog school that allows the public to meet and cuddle future guide dog puppies. Visitors can take tours of the campus, schedule a puppy-hugging session or schedule a walk with one of the dogs. You can even get the guide dog experience by taking a blindfolded walk with a trainer and one of the dogs in training. “The joy, independence and mobility these puppy heroes will bring to someone one day is truly extraordinary,” Kern said. But there are some who don’t make it through the training process successfully. If they get easily sidetracked by environmental distractions they will go on to train as police dogs, or still have some sort of working career. Some of them will even have the option of going home with their puppy raisers.” Ruth Lando, manager of media relations, said the organization has more than 400 volunteers and is always looking for more. Funding is also an ongoing challenge. One teenager recently donated $1,000 of bat mitzvah money to the organization. Another young girl, Illinois native Nicole LeVee, visits her grandparents in Sarasota every year during winter break. Her trip always includes a tour of the Southeastern Guide Dogs facility, where she participates in a puppy hugging session. Resisting the temptation to spend the money on material items, she chose to donate the money to the establishment. 34 Above, Southeastern Guide Dogs Director of Admissions Suzy Wilburn is also a graduate of the school and owner of Carson, a 5-year-old guide dog. Middle and below, a trainer and future guide dog owner go through exercises on the grounds of the facility.


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