Watkins, who retired in 2008 from a 30-year career with the University of Texas at Austin, said that his "epiphany" came during a business trip to San Francisco. After a meeting, he started crossing Market Street to return to his hotel on a busy afternoon. He found the curb with his cane, waited for the traffic sounds to indicate when he could cross safely and started walking. Unfortunately, a woman crossing from the other direction came too close and ran her legs and shoe into his cane. He pulled the cane free of the shoe, she kept walking and the cane went flying. There he was, no "visual" (the white cane) to show he couldn't see while standing in the middle of Market Street with cars and streetcars passing in both directions. Fortunately, someone retrieved his cane and he reached his hotel, but only after realizing there must be a better way.
Watkins had heard of Guide Dogs for the Blind and quickly made arrangements to seek a four-legged companion. Accepted into the program, he underwent training and returned home to Austin with his first dog, Phantom. His son, picking him up at the airport, remarked that his father looked safe and unafraid. And that was true. "With a cane you advertise you are blind and vulnerable, but with a large dog you are perceived as protected," he told the Rotary club.
He said Guide Dogs for the Blind was started in 1942 by Lois Maryhugh in Los Gatos as a service to returning blind War War II veterans on the West Coast. The program moved to San Rafael in 1947 and has placed 13,000 dogs to date. Even lacking government backing, the organization provides the best trained dogs at no cost to the blind recipient. The service includes providing the harness, personal training and replacement of a dog for life. The dogs are trained on site in San Rafael or Bering, Ore., from birth. They learn such commands as "elevator, escalator, stairs, doorways," to name a few. On average, 300 guide dogs are trained each year.
Accompanying Morgan at the Rotary meeting was a beautiful 83-pound Golden Retriever named Will, his second dog since Phantom. With him and driving was his assistant, Susi Cherry, a retired breeding volunteer at Guide Dogs for the Blind.
While there are many great causes worthy of charitable donations, few can immediately change a life or continue to have an impact throughout a lifetime as Guide Dogs for the Blind. Besides supporting the school, contributions also enable the organization to keep its promise to each of the more than 2,000 blind men and women who are alumni. The services offered are free of charge and provided without any government aid. Donations are tax deductible and can be sent to Guide Dogs for the Blind, P.O. Box 3950, San Rafael, CA 94912-3950. For more information or for tours of the San Rafael facility, call 800-295-4050 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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