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Nola's Notes
home : features : nola's notes
December 1, 2021

8/6/2021 1:46:00 PM
A Real Hero Restores Life
Cheri and Hero
Cheri and Hero
By Chris Cameron

Earlier this summer, an Englewood area resident received a guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs and is now able start living her life again. Cheryl (Cheri) Sytsma has been rescued by her own personal hero, aptly named Hero!
Cheri was born with “lazy eye”, aka amblyopia, which gave her double vision. Of course, Cheri just thought everyone saw like she did. At age five, she had her first surgical procedure to try to correct the problem, but it was unsuccessful. Even with glasses, she struggled in school as she tried to learn to read. Feeling frustrated, she is thankful that her first and second grade teachers continued to encourage her to keep trying. Although she enjoyed the subjects of science and math, school was very hard for her and forget gym! She saw two of everything, so she never was sure which object was the “real” ball. Her mother chose not to put her into a special class as she wanted to keep her in mainstream schooling. During high school, she worked as a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) in the evenings as she loved the idea of helping others.
After graduating high school, Cheri began classes at a junior college where she had the good fortune of meeting a vision specialist who taught her to block out the page except for the line she was reading, and the world of reading opened up to her. She graduated from the Chicago School of Massage Therapy in 1985 and was hired by the upscale Mario Triocio Salon & Spa in Chicago, where she performed massage, acupuncture, reflexology and aromatherapy. Later in her career, she worked for a chiropractor.
Cheri moved to the Englewood area after vacationing with her mother and stepdad. She relocated here because she fell in love with the beaches and outdoor lifestyle and, of course, the weather.  Up until about ten years ago, her vision had remained more or less consistent, but then her vision started to worsen with dimming vision in her right eye, bad headaches, and problems with dizziness. Then she started losing the peripheral vision in her left eye and was declared legally blind two years ago.
Cheri applied for a guide dog through Southeastern Guide Dogs and during the wait, found herself withdrawing from social outings due to frequent falls and balance loss. Her world narrowed to basically being homebound due to safety concerns, and even then, she would run into objects in her house.
The application process to receive a guide dog lasted about two years as Southeastern Guide Dogs had curtailed their training and programs due to COVID-19. In the meantime, she served as a relief puppy-raiser volunteer for the organization and took dog training lessons. With the easing of the pandemic restrictions, Cheri received the news she had been waiting on! Her application was approved April 20th. Southeastern Guide Dogs brought four “trial” dogs to visit Cheri and allow her to “test drive” each dog by practicing walking and other activities. Each guide dog has its own pace, and that pace needs to be matched to the person’s pace as a dog moving too quickly or slowly will increase the potential fall risk.
On May 2nd, Cheri went to the Southeastern Guide Dog campus in Palmetto for a three week stay. Each member of her eight-person class enjoyed a private room and she was introduced to her dog, Hero. Hero is a two-year-old female yellow Labrador retriever and the two spent their time developing a personal bond and undergoing partnership training during the three-week session. “Hero is very much a go-getter, and she wants to learn and to teach me to do the right things,” Cheri says. The campus is set up with various life scenarios and the students, with the help of their dog partner, learn how to function successfully and safely in the “real” world. Towards the end of the class, the students have field trips to different locations for real-life situations. Cheri says as the relationship develops over time, you learn to communicate with your dog and teach each other how to work as a team and understand what your partner is saying. She can’t praise Southeastern Guide Dogs enough, mentioning the outstanding campus, the bonds formed with her human instructors, and her entire experience there. There is no cost to the guide dog recipient. Thanks to generous donations from FROMM Family Pet Food and Elanco, she receives free dog food, and is provided with Hero’s heartworm/flea protection and free regular vet visits.
Cheri plans to start pursuing the activities she enjoys, like basket weaving, swimming, and creating a social life, as well as continuing the Zoom courses by the Lighthouse of Manasota (vision loss education center) on her computer. She and Hero continue to learn as a team and when off duty, Hero loves to play ball and she really loves people.
Before withdrawing due to her vision loss, Cheri had been a very friendly and social person. Hero is also very friendly, so the pair are starting to regenerate a social life together. She has become an advocate for both the American Council of the Blind and the Florida Council of the Blind. “Hero makes me feel a lot more secure, independent, and just happy to go out and engage in life again,” Cheri declares and then adds, “She is my hero. I have been looking forward to this time for nearly two years now, and it’s finally here!”
Cheri offers some guidelines for the public when you encounter an individual with a guide/service dog.
Remember that the dog is working – do not try to greet the dog or distract it from doing its job. If at some point, the person offers to let you greet the dog, wait until the person gives the command to the dog that’s it is okay to interact with you.
It is disheartening to have a person focus on the dog and forget that the dog has a person with it – greet the person first.
If you are asked for directions, remember that a person with impaired vision can’t see, so don’t point in a direction or say “over there” or “at the yellow sign.” Give a verbal direction like “continue straight ahead to the corner” or “it is on your right in four feet.”
NEVER grab the dog’s leash or harness!
If you come across a service dog alone, follow it, as the dog is trained to seek help for the owner and will lead you to that individual.
Southeastern Guide Dogs transforms lives by creating and nurturing extraordinary partnerships between people and dogs. The organization breeds, raises and trains elite guide/service dogs and skilled companion dogs, providing life-changing services for people with vision loss, veterans with disabilities, and children with significant challenges. Since 1982, Southeastern Guide Dogs has created over 3,300 guide and service dog teams, all provided at no cost to qualified people, plus follow-up training. Donations and volunteers are greatly appreciated. The campus is located at 4210 77th Street East, Palmetto. Learn more at www.guidedogs.org.

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