Even $8,000 is bargain for independence

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, January 24, 2009

Julie Marshall softly stroked the head of her companion, Gail, as she very succinctly summed up what the German shepherd means to her.

“This is my first dog. She has made a big difference in my life. I have no vision at night,” the Huntington, W.Va.-resident said. “If I go out at night, it really helps me a lot.

But Gail is far from just a pet.

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Marshall suffers from macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, a rare, inherited disease in which the light-sensitive retina of the eye slowly and progressively degenerates. Complete blindness eventually results.

But Marshall won’t have to face this challenge alone. The Ironton Lions Club continued its efforts to help those who are vision-impaired by donating $8,000 to Pilot Dogs Inc., of Columbus, to sponsor Gail.

This is the fourth dog in the past five or six years that the club has sponsored.

And when you actually sit down and talk with someone who receives an animal, it is truly heartwarming and makes me proud to be a part of this organization.

Guide dogs are their eyes, their friends and their independence all wrapped into one.

“It makes you feel pretty good when you see someone benefit from a dog,” Ironton Lions president Dave Swartzwelder said last week as he choked back a few tears.

Talking to Marshall, it is easy to see why it is so important.

Even though she has only had the dog since November, Marshall is adamant that Gail has already made a tremendous impact on her life.

While walking in Wayne, Marshall came to an intersection. Though she has very little peripheral vision, she thought it was safe to cross the street.

“I gave the command ‘forward.’ She stopped and went straight across my body so I couldn’t walk,” Marshall said, explaining that a car speeded by. “She did save our life. She saved us from getting hit.”

Pilot Dogs works with about 150 individuals a year from all over the country and are an official partner with Lions International.

The company trains golden retrievers, labradors, boxers, dobermans, shepherds and standard poodles. Most, but not all, are pure bred.

Animals are put into service for nearly a decade.

“When you consider eight years, that is eight years of freedom for somebody,” said Jay Gray, executive director of Pilot Dogs.

How can you put a price tag on freedom or independence? You can’t.

If our donation allows Marshall to live a better life for even eight years, a breakdown of about $1,000 a year, that is money well spent.

Seeing this makes all those long hours at the Haunted Tunnel, the Lions Club’s primary fundraiser worthwhile.

Delivering scares is satisfying. Making a difference in someone’s life is rewarding on an entirely different level.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Ironton Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com.