By Jim Price
Her dazzling smile lights up the room now, but not too long ago Anna Garzya was ready to give up. "I had recently moved to Southern California from Mexico. Living in a new country, and not being able to speak English well was bad enough. But I was also going blind." Retinitis pigmentosa left her almost completely blind at night, and with severe tunnel vision in daylight. Her depression nearly overwhelmed her.
But somehow, she found the strength to fight. She started taking language classes. She got a job as a waitress, then later as a cashier. At the time she could see well enough for those jobs.
As her English improved, she found the confidence to attend a community college, and then went on to Cal State Fullerton, where she earned her bachelor's degree in sociology. Soon, she became a single mom with a beautiful baby girl, Amy, who quickly became all the reason she would ever need to keep on living. Unfortunately, her vision continued to decline.
"I was struggling along with my cane, bumping into walls and people. I could get to the bus stop with a cane and the little bit of vision I had, but I would still drift off the sidewalk sometimes. I even fell down the stairs one day at school." At Fullerton she got her first glimpse of people with vision loss using guide dogs. "They were moving around so easily and so fast. I said to myself, 'I need to get a guide dog.'"
Once she made the decision, the process was easy. She phoned for an application, and a home interview was scheduled. It was good that she had mastered the skills necessary to travel independently with her cane and was able to demonstrate traveling on several routes to destinations in her neighborhood. Her application for training was accepted, and she was soon on her way to the Guide Dog campus in San Rafael, Calif.
Her eyes mist up when she relates, "I got my dog Neeley on the Fourth of July, 2003. That was truly my independence day. Getting a guide changed everything. Suddenly I felt very, very free. With a cane I would get lost and bump into things. With a dog I may still get lost, but I don't bump into things or fall down. Even if I do get lost I still feel safe. From the very first day Neeley took care of me."
Back home at Fullerton, one of Anna's challenges was explaining the role of guide dogs to her family and friends. "In our culture dogs are never allowed in the house or car," she explained. "People would ask me to leave my dog outside when I visited. I told them that that is like asking me to leave my eyes outside."
Neeley and Anna were inseparable, right up to the point that Neeley needed surgery on one of his legs. Four months of rehab at Guide Dogs' clinic still couldn't bring him all the way back. He'd lost a lot of his confidence and Anna had to make the tough decision to retire him.
This time, she attended Guide Dog training at the Oregon campus, in Boring, near Portland. Her new guide, Argent, is a happy, attentive yellow Lab who looks a lot like Neeley. "He seems really fast right now but that's because he's younger. And, oh yeah, I'm five years older," she admits with a smile.
At home now in southern California, Anna said Argent is adjusting quickly and learning his way around. He guides her daily to her job as a travel agent with Walt Disney Travel Company, where she helps people plan their Disneyland trips. She's working on her master's degree, and she said she and Argent are continuing their mission of teaching her culture all about guide dogs.