Annabell is a South Carolina teen with a genetic condition that has robbed her of her vision and made the 14-year-old dependent on a white cane for getting around. But like many young people with visual impairments, Annabell has been eager to trade her white cane for a guide dog that offers greater independence, mobility, freedom and dignity. She also wants to set a “good example” for her younger sister, who faces the same eye condition and the same set of challenges with her environment and interactions with other people.

Now that Southeastern Guide Dogs has lowered the age for guide dog applicants to 15 from 18 and instituted an introductory camp experience solely for teens and their parents, Annabell says she is much closer to achieving her goal.

On March 22 and 23, Annabell and her mother, Elise, joined the first group of six teens, ages 14 to 17, for two days of total immersion into the guide dog experience. Southeastern Guide Dogs created this special, no-cost, hands-on camp program so that teens like Annabell can learn more about what a guide dog could mean for them. Over the two days they were actively engaged in activities explaining the human/dog bond, expectations for long-term canine care, grooming, obedience, dog massage, playtime, and more. To qualify, campers must be either currently enrolled in Orientation & Mobility training with a white cane, or have already completed it.

Guide Dog Camp takes place on the 33-acre campus in Palmetto, where teens and their parents stay separately in private rooms with their own bathroom, flat-screen TV, Amazon Echo and private patio. They dine on chef-prepared meals all provided free of charge. But most importantly, the expert training and operations staff at Southeastern Guide Dogs prepares the teens for all aspects of working with a superhero dog that will one day transform their lives in ways they can’t yet imagine.

Katie Perez, manager, programs for children & teens, was thrilled with the inaugural Guide Dog Camp. “To have the opportunity to witness the rapid transformation in these teens as they walked with our trained guide dogs for the first time is an experience I will never forget,” says Katie. “Tentative steps turned into confident strides as they picked up the harness handle for the first time and allowed our guide dogs to show them that a life with more confidence and independence can, quite literally, be right at their fingertips when they are ready.”

Both Annabell and her mom enjoyed the “hands-on” work with the dogs in camp, and thought it was a “golden opportunity” to experience the confidence and trust that a guide dog match offers to handlers. “This opens up more opportunities for me,” says the ambitious young woman who hopes to become a world-traveling anthropologist someday. “I know a guide dog will have a positive effect for my life.”

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