EDMOND — Kathleen Kennedy continues to adapt to a life without sight, but she gets a big boost from two special dogs whose eyes and love mean nothing less than the world to her.
Kennedy, 59, of Edmond, doesn't elaborate on what happened, only that she lost her sight in a matter of a week in 2001 and realized it was not coming back. She accepted the reality and was determined to adjust, and perhaps even thrive.
A trained guide dog means she does many of the things sighted people take for granted. She can get out in public and perform the tasks that make life as normal as possible. Her first dog, Pasha, made that possible for nine years.
Now Kennedy has a new companion, Jamie, who is continuing that mission.
“She (Jamie) means everything to me,” Kennedy said. “She's my eyes.”
Pasha might not be a working dog anymore, but she continues to have a home with Kennedy.
“I love her,” Kennedy said. The two animals have become “best buds,” as Kennedy puts it.
After she lost her sight, Kennedy learned braille and was told she was a good candidate for a guide dog. Pasha, a yellow Labrador, was trained at the Guide Dogs for the Blind school in San Rafael, Calif. Kennedy spent 28 days bonding with the dog before taking her home.
She had known Pasha would have to retire in eight or nine years, and in June, Kennedy returned to San Rafael. A volunteer couple, Stephanie Matzke and Tim Mumford, had trained her new yellow Lab for 16 months
There was no cost incurred by Kennedy for either Pasha or Jamie. Expenses donated to her included transportation to and from the West Coast, lodging, food and the training of the animal. Kennedy thinks all those expenses made Jamie a gift valued at $75,000 to $80,000.
That is quite an investment, and the sightless are told to protect their animals.
“They tell us always to hold onto the leash tightly,” Kennedy said. “One got away from a friend of mine in Oklahoma City and was run over on Meridian.”
Matzke, in a telephone interview, admitted becoming emotionally attached to Jamie during the training.
“Though it is heartbreaking to say goodbye, it is gratifying she can enable someone to have a normal life,” Matzke said.
The dogs are trained to ignore an owner's order that might put the person in jeopardy, such as traffic. The harness the dog wears is key to how it reacts.
“Just like when we put on a tie, we know we're going to work,” Mumford said. “When they put on the harness, they know they're working.”
It's never proper to pet or touch a guide dog while it is working or has the harness on, Kennedy said.
“I've had people at the store want to pet her, and I have to stop them all the time,” Kennedy said. “Once a lady tried to pet Jamie, and a child told her, ‘No mommy. That's a working dog.'”
Helping others learn
The child's intervention may have resulted from the type of public outreach Kennedy does. She speaks at elementary schools and brings her dog to expose children to challenges faced by the blind and the crucial mission of the guide dog.
Once she gives her presentation, she takes the harness off, and the children enjoy petting the animal.
Kennedy is enjoying life with the two dogs, but she did learn one vital lesson right away.
“Normally I would always just say ‘harness,'” she said. “I said that right after I got Jamie, and both Pasha and Jamie started to get ready. I had to learn to say ‘harness, Jamie.'”
Jamie and Kennedy aren't afraid to go trekking for three or four miles. That walk will take her to a nearby pharmacy, a fitness club and a bank.
The mother of two adult sons, Kennedy sings in the choir at United Methodist Church of the Servant and serves on the Friends of the Library board.
“Life just goes on as always,” she said. “I just can't see.”