THE HEART OF THE MATTER
a special program of the National Emergency Medicine Association (NEMA) 

Week: 521.1 Guest: Steve Kuusisto Topic: Guiding Eyes for the Blind Host: Steve Girard Producer: Ed Graham

NEMA: It may be the largest program of its kind in the country...and it takes a lot Volunteers to make it work. We're with Steve Kuusisto, the alumni relations director of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Westchester County, New York...tell me about the school and its program....

Kuusisto: Guiding Eyes for the Blind was founded back in 1956, to provide guide dogs for people who are blind and visually impaired, and in particular, there has been an emphasis in providing guide dogs to people whose physical condition might be additionally challenged alongside blindness. So we have a very strong commitment to what we call a special needs program.

NEMA: Where do your potential students/ companions come from, and how do they become guide dogs?

Kuusisto: Guiding Eyes has its own breeding center...we have approximately 6 to 700 puppies born to the program each year....those puppies are bred and selected along a very careful series of lines having to do with temperament, intelligence, and physical stamina. Then, when the dogs are about 8 weeks old, they go through some preliminary testing, and we look to see whether the dogs are plucky and able to respond to and recover from sudden stimulus...and if they look intrepid enough, then we send them out to live with puppy raising families, who are volunteers. We have, currently, 500 puppy raising families...from North Carolina all the way up to Maine. And for the first 14 months of the dog's life, it lives in a family's home environment, although for the time the dog is living with the family, it undergoes no guide dog training...just basic obedience training and a lot of personal attention. And the dogs come back here, where we evaluate how they're doing, temperamentally. The dogs that pass the infratraining review, then go into guide dog training with our certified guide dog trainers, who are here at the center.

NEMA: It takes a lot of money, Steve, to run such a comprehensive program... where does it come from?

Kuusisto: It costs about 25 thousand dollars to breed, raise and train each one of these guide dogs. All of that expense is absorbed by Guiding Eyes for the Blind, but all of the money comes from private donations, none of it comes from federal or state agencies. We charge no fee for any of the services. We're a very lucky organization in that we have a lot of devoted volunteers.

NEMA: About half the dogs trained at Guiding Eyes for the Blind don't make the cut...but don't worry...most of them go to the families that raised them, or to other families waiting on lists for these special animals...some are even gainfully employed by law enforcement agencies around the world. If you would like become a foster owner for a guide dog in training....call Guiding Eyes at 1-800-942-0149, and they'll put you in touch with a program in your area. I'm SG.