by Jim Price
"Denial is a beautiful thing," Frances Maldonado said, a sheepish grin on her face. She knew for years that she had retinitis pigmentosa, but it wasn't that bad. She volunteers at an organization that helps people who are blind and her friends there would regularly ask her when she was going to get a guide dog. "When I'm actually blind," she would sharply reply.
Then last February, as she was walking in a cross walk on the way to her Florida home, she was knocked to the ground by a car she didn't see coming. Luckily, she was not seriously injured but that incident changed her life forever.
The following week, her retina specialist explained her vision had shrunk to just ten degrees straight ahead. Frances knew it was finally time. She immediately began an internet search and decided to call Guide Dogs for the Blind. "They called me back right away and I'm sure glad they did," she said. "The people here are wonderful."
She was in her second week of the two-week course at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Sound asleep on the floor at her side was Orrin, a handsome, young yellow Lab and her new partner. "He's so mellow," she sighed. "While some of the dogs are all excited and jumping around he's just relaxed and calm, waiting to go to work. We are bonding so well already, and it has only been a week."
Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the Bronx, New York, Maldonado didn't have pets growing up. "I was nervous about that, but so far so good. The instructors keep reminding me to speak up and let him know who is boss, and I'm getting better." At 56 she is working hard at breaking old habits, like keeping her head up and allowing the dog to watch for obstacles. "It's hard. I'm not perfect, and neither is he, but together we have already made a lot of progress. I know we are going to be a good team."
Back home in Winter Park, Florida, the team will be traveling three or four days a week to Lighthouse, a non-profit organization that teaches independent living skills, technology and Braille. The trip will entail two separate busses and about an hour of travel time each way. Maldonado is a teacher's aide there, helping in the independent living department, where she does everything from assisting students and providing Spanish translation when they need it. She is also on the advisory board of the Alumni Association at Lighthouse. "It's a really nice place and I love going there. I'm sure Orrin will love it, too."
Adjusting to her own blindness was tough. "It was a time for tears," she said, shaking her head at the memory. "It's still difficult at times, but with the support of my daughters and husband, and now my new partner, I'll be just fine. Life goes on and it is what you make of it. I've been so dependent on my husband, especially at night, but with Orrin's help I can go places on my own. Last night we did our first night route and back on the bus I nearly cried; I was so happy. It was so liberating. And this is just the beginning."