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04 December, 2015

How a Guide Dog helps Helen live her life

Helen gives high five to a young boy

"I've always had a love of teaching. Looking back, perhaps that love started when I was working on a 32,000 acre property, and was Governess to four children, amongst other things. That gave me the desire to become a teacher.

I was a music teacher, and then a primary school teacher. I taught violin until an illness meant I could no longer hold my arm up for the violin, so I took up cello.

I taught in Brisbane and in Sydney, then came to a special school where I taught children who were blind. And still do! This is my 30th year teaching, though of course I'm not here every day - I'm in my 70s!

The children I work with have difficulties and disabilities, yes ... yet all can contribute, and learn, and teach us so many things.

There is so much I can learn from them. Usually people only think with their heads. The children here, they think with their hearts. Even though some cannot speak, and others cannot express themselves, they teach me that this current moment is the only moment there is, not yesterday or tomorrow."

"I started losing my sight on the 19th of March, 1994. I was doing an art weekend. Drawing - not bungee jumping, not touch football! There was no pain, but I just noticed that the vision ... I started to lose the vision from the bottom up in my eye.

First of all it was as though I was looking through a tear ... but then it sort of just disappeared.

So I went back to the course the next day. After that, there were visits to doctors and hospitals. It turned out I had a torn and detached retina. The doctors repaired it, but my sight was different afterwards.

All I could see was really big shapes like buses, and really bright colours, and light and dark."

"So I had that bit of vision until about six years ago, when I had a really bad coughing virus. I woke up one morning and the rest of my sight had gone.

I didn't go back to the doctor. I mean, I don't have anything against doctors or medicine but, like, that's enough, just get on with it you know? I already had a Guide Dog then, Sienna. So I caught two trains totally blind to come up to school that morning.

How did it feel? It was a bit scary, and pretty dreary to be honest.

You know, I've had really black times, but the black times don't help. I have to just acknowledge that it's black, well, excuse the pun... acknowledge that it's a dreary time for a little bit and get on with the rest of living. You've only got one chance."

"I've had three dogs now. Imelda was Miss Perfect. She was a red-headed Labrador, and was puppy-raised by a retired woman who lived independently but had grandchildren visiting - so Imelda wouldn't even think of going near the kitchen!

Imelda was excellent until she was ten, she tried but no longer wanted to do what she was trained to do. She walked me up the middle of a main road - but I didn't know until a truckie called out. I knew then it was time for her to retire.

Then I was given Sienna, around the time I went on a pilgrimage through France and Italy and Spain.

When she was six she had a series of bad ear infections, and also a liver enzyme problem. I was cooking seven kilos of chicken breasts a fortnight for her, and not doing it very well. So that was when Sienna retired."

"Miriam's great. I retired Sienna on a Tuesday, and then I got Miriam on the Wednesday. Miriam was matched with somebody else, but it didn't work out. Perhaps it was a young person who wanted to walk 20km a day or something. Miriam has potentially got a hip frailty, and wouldn't be able to keep up. But she's fantastic for me.

Here at school she's very calm and patient. I mean her tail is pulled. Her toe-nails are pulled. And she just takes it.

When we're working she's become more assertive, and that's really good. Now I'm starting to have trouble hearing, she takes more of the lead. I trust her a lot.

At home she's very playful, but also very peaceful. She doesn't have to be by my side all the time. When she's off the lead, she'll go outside, and then when she's tired, she goes to her bean bag. She calms down quite quickly."

"The children here love Miriam! You can't keep them away - except for a few, but the few become fewer every year.

I think that's a very important role for Miriam.

Do children with this degree of disability or autism need to be frightened of a Labrador? No! There are so many other things in life they will be frightened of - it's great a Labrador can be one less.

There's one boy, he's in Year Six now, so I've known him for seven years ... at first he would go to the back of the room. He wouldn't come anywhere near me.

Now he'll come up and do High-5 with me and help me play guitar while I've got Miriam just there. To me that makes everything worth it."

"I started losing my hearing seven years ago as well. Once you lose your vision, you rely so much on your hearing. If both your ears and eyes are not working well, it's very tough ...

I feel that if I can't get my mobility happening, and feel confident about new routes and challenges, then I cannot justify having a Guide Dog. For company yes, and for love yes, but she's a working dog. She's been trained, and there are lots of people waiting for dogs. So it's up to me now to make the most of her and get moving.

If I didn't have a dog, I probably wouldn't be able to go out. It would just be too traumatic. I know if I hadn't had a dog over the last - what is it, eighteen years? - I might be a very sad, depressed, non-karate-doing person who up until the last six months has walked many routes.

I probably wouldn't be able to teach here either.

The school wouldn't say that, but I probably would. I mean, Miriam's the most popular staff member. How could I come back without her?"

Guide Dog Miriam gives Helen the mobility and independence to live her life as she wants. The children she works with needn't miss a moment of Helen's teaching, because you helped prepare puppies to be Guide Dogs.

It's not just Miriam - it's Imelda and Sienna too, the Guide Dogs Helen had before Miriam. (A young person may need five Guide Dogs in their lifetime.)

Today, please help prepare a puppy to be a Guide Dog like Miriam ... 54 precious Guide Dogs need to be training now.

Please donate now