Guiding the way: blind student matched with guide dog

Brooklyn Dippo | News Editor

Senior Mike Girard was matched with his new guide dog, Eric, following a fundraiser started by Sigma Pi in the Spring of 2015 to cover the expense of the dog's care.

Senior Mike Girard was matched with his new guide dog, Eric, following a fundraiser started by Sigma Pi in the Spring of 2015 to cover the expense of the dog’s care.

Eric might be four-legged and furry but he is more than a friend to Mike Girard; the German shepherd is a guide dog for the blind student. In a fundraiser last spring known as Operation Bow Wow, the Sigma Pi fraternity raised thousands of dollars to fund the lifetime expense of a guide dog for fellow Torero.

The lucky recipient of that guide dog was Mike Girard, a senior at University of San Diego who is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in sociology. Girard was not born blind; he lost his vision in 1995 when he was 25 years old.

Girard was en route to look at a job working with blind and disabled veterans when he was the victim of a hit-and-run motorcycle accident in Washington D.C. and his optic nerves were severed.  

“I awoke and I felt plaster,” Girard said. “Well this is an awfully nice joke, but why is it dark? It must be night time.”

Doctors were surprised that he even survived the accident. Following extensive surgeries they anticipated that Girard would spend his life paralyzed.

In fact, not being able to walk again was his biggest fear. Losing his sight was far less concerning to him; it didn’t seem like a setback in comparison. Girard believed that if Helen Keller could attend university and become a social activist without sight or hearing, then he could certainly manage being blind in the 21st century with the help of technology.  

When Girard regained his mobility he moved back to Connecticut where he had spent his teenage years, and began attending Wesleyan University. Girard immersed himself in student life and joined the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Wesleyan.

Given multiple scholarship offers, Girard decided to give the warm San Diego weather a try and started attending USD in the fall of 2012. While he was determined to be an exemplary student he still had obstacles to overcome including navigating the campus and reading textbooks.

Reading textbooks is still the biggest challenge to his education and it is a problem Girard thinks could be easy for school administrators to resolve.

“If that book doesn’t exist [in braille or audio format] I have to do one of three things,” Girard said. “One, work with the professor one-on-one who is willing to do that or is receptive to that. Two, try to find someone who will read. Or three, go to school without textbooks. And nine times out of 10, that last one has been the scenario.”

A limited number of his books are available through Learning Ally, a non-profit dedicated to creating audio textbooks for blind students. Two sororities, Alpha Chi Omega and Alpha Delta Pi, have consistently taken the time to read Girard’s textbooks to him. With their help Girard has overachieved in his classes and earned a 3.9 GPA. Girard says that many of his professors are perplexed that fraternity and sorority members go out of their way to help him.

Despite many preconceptions on campus about Greek organizations, they have become like a family to Girard.

“Greek life has enabled me to transform a very challenging life into a remarkable life,” Girard said. “And through greek life I continue to find a new life. They make me feel as though I am still able, capable, that I am still a guy.”

Some members of Greek Life even helped Girard fill out applications for guide dogs. One day Girard’s friend Jesse Nebres, a member of the Sigma Pi fraternity, asked him why he didn’t have a guide dog yet. Without reliable income, Mike could never decide what to write in the part of the application asking if he could financially care for the dog’s medical, dental, food, and grooming expenses. Nebres had the idea to propose a fundraiser for Mike for his fraternity’s philanthropy event.

“When I told Mike’s story and suggested helping him get a guide dog, I felt the energy in the room change,” Nebres said. “Mike really is a guy who has been though a lot of hardship, and here was an opportunity for Sigma Pi to make meaningful impact in his life. Sponsoring Operation Bow Wow as our next philanthropy was a unanimous decision.”

Sigma Pi began fundraising for Operation Bow Wow in January of 2015 and other organizations quickly got involved. USDTV made a promotional video for the cause and the Filipino Ugnayan Student Organization took professional photos for promotional materials. The president of Beta Alpha Psi, the accounting fraternity, assisted with the finances and every other fraternity and sorority organizations helped to spread the word. The local ABC News affiliates picked up the story and the donations flooded in. Operation Bow Wow surpassed its goal and raised over $10,000 in cash.

One of the biggest donations came from a USD parent. Dr. Sarbjit Singh is a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Hospital of Poway who’s daughter is in the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. He offered to provide free medical and dental services for the life of the guide dog which can cost hundreds of dollars a month.

With the money to fund a dog now, Girard moved forward in the process of getting a guide dog. In May Guide Dogs of the Desert in Palm Springs found a match for him, a black lab named Fritsie. Unfortunately the dog had difficulty adapting to Girard’s living situation and navigating Linda Vista so the dog was reclaimed after a month.

In the meantime Girard found a new housing situation with the help of USD. He moved on campus into graduate student housing and with that problem resolved he was ready for a new dog.

Mike got a call from Eye Dog Foundation for the Blind, an organ based out of Phoenix, Arizona last November to discuss his application. They found a match for him and invited him to come to training in January. He was paired with an 18-month old German shepherd named Eric and together they graduated from guide dog training.

Starting a new semester, however, has brought some challenges to their training. Because Eric is still a puppy he is occasionally distracted from his work by other dogs and students on campus. For the next two years Girard has to consistently correct these behaviors because if he doesn’t it can undo all of his training.

“It is important that I correct his behaviors because my safety and security is on the line,” Girard said. “In school we were taught to use leash corrections which are perfectly harmless to the dog.”

Girard feels that some students have a hard time understanding that Eric is a working dog and not just a pet. Girard explained that Eric has to be corrected so that he only disobeys commands when it is for his safety.

Other students can help with his training by not approaching or petting Eric while his harness is on. Girard also invites them to ask questions any time about the training process or ask if they need help navigating.

He said that all of his teachers have been very welcome to having a guide dog in class. Professor Tyler Hower, who teaches his Introduction to Philosophy course, enjoys having both Girard and Eric in class.

“[Mike] brings more and different experiences than many of the students or I have had,” Hower said. “In particular, he brings the experience of negotiating and understanding the world through different sense modalities than most of us. Because of that, he is particularly good at bringing to light unsupported assumptions about the relationship between knowledge and particular pieces of knowledge and sight.”

Professor Hower is also careful to reinforce Eric’s training and make sure that students in his class do the same.

I love Eric,” Hower said. “But during class he lies down and sleeps. I’m privileged to get to say hello to him when he isn’t working. The only real difficulty has to do with people not understanding that when he is working, he is working.”

While Eric’s training will not be complete for almost two more years, with the continued support of the USD community Girard is confident that this dog will be his guide for years to come.