by Jim Price
She has lived with low vision and blindness for more than half her 42 years, yet she doesn't seem to even notice. In her mind, she's not a blind person, she's a community activist. She's a voc rehab counselor and a wife. She's someone who helps others and she's a person who gets things done.
Karla Rivas of Phoenix was born and raised in Guatemala. She was a college student there when at 19 she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. "They told me there was nothing they could do," she said during a break in training recently at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. "There was no surgery, no treatment, and it would happen quickly, so I should learn to do something a blind person could do. They said I was wasting my time going to college."
Well, "they" didn't know her very well. She is not the kind to accept defeat easily. She continued at school and began searching for services for the blind. She didn't find much, however, in a country that had just ended more than 35 years of civil war. She was struggling with a math class when a friend suggested she contact the American embassy and ask about getting a talking calculator. "I couldn't imagine such a thing," she exclaimed. "I had never heard of anything like that. How could a calculator talk?"
She had always done well in school and was on a scholarship so she bundled up her transcripts and best references and sent them with a letter to the embassy asking for help. She said she was in college, she was going blind, but she didn't want to quit school. A woman called and explained there were no programs available to help individuals but she and her coworkers were going to try to raise the money themselves. A few months later they presented her with the calculator and her very first cane (other than the one she had made herself.) "I was so excited" she said. "I was like a kid with a new toy.
"Then the lady at the embassy called back and said, 'Why don't you apply for a scholarship?' She was so nice. I decided to apply, not because I thought I could get it, but because she wanted me to." A few months later she was on her way to Chico, California with a Fulbright scholarship from the US Dept. of Education. It included airfare, tuition, books and a monthly allowance. "It was like hitting the jackpot!" she said, her black eyes sparkling.
As she talked, her new partner lay snoozing on a cushion at her side. Dutchess is a yellow Lab, as was her first Guide Dog, Begonia. Rivas was in the second and final week of training with Dutchess.
After earning her bachelor's degree, Rivas headed back to Guatemala and in her luggage was that calculator, a talking computer, a Braille printer, and she had the understanding of how these things could help blind people. After working as a translator for a time, she came up with the idea of creating a school to teach blind people about the latest technology. She established the first ever computer school for the blind in Guatemala, after getting a $230,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation.
Over the next few years she established and worked with programs to help indigenous people. She worked with a human rights group. She traveled to China to the World Women's conference as a guest of Kellogg, and all the while she kept her friends at the American Embassy updated on her activities. One day a man from the Embassy called and suggested she apply for another scholarship, this time to get her master's degree. "He was so nice I did it just for him, knowing I didn't have a chance. A few weeks later he called and said he had good news and bad. The good news was I won the scholarship. The bad news was I had to leave in less than a week." Two years later she graduated from Arizona State University with a master's degree in social work.
It was at ASU that she met a blind person with a guide dog who suggested she get one. "I told her there were no laws in Guatemala to protect blind people and guide dogs but she said, 'Karla, you can make changes.' I've always loved dogs and so I began doing the research. I looked at five different guide dog schools and decided GDB was best for me. I made arrangements to attend training in the summer of 1999. That's when I got Begonia and she changed my life."
Begonia and Rivas were partners for more than 10 years. "She was amazing," she said, her eyes tearing up. "So smart, so well trained. I remember the day I got her. They wouldn't tell me anything about her until the last moment. I was the last one in line of 12 students. When I heard her name I shouted, 'It's a girl!'"
Begonia worked up until three days before her death from hepatitis. "I couldn't even pet another dog for two months," explained Rivas. "She was like my daughter. She wanted to work right to the end. She was so happy working. My friends said she always had a smile on her face when she was working and her tail never stopped wagging.
"I remember the first time I took hold of the harness. I could feel this wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, and then away we went, so fast I couldn't believe it. And by the time we finished training I totally trusted her."
Back in Phoenix preparing to return to Guatemala, friends got word to her that the name Karla Rivas turned up on a secret Guatemalan Army hit list. She discovered that her brother, who she thought had been killed in an accident in 1984, had actually been killed by the army after being named as a communist for his work as an activist for indigenous people. Now, 15 years later, the people responsible were threatening the families if they investigated further. Rivas compiled the pertinent documents and applied for asylum, which she was granted within weeks.
After struggling to find a job, she finally went to work as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the Arizona Dept. of Economic Security, where she has been for nine years and is now a supervisor. Begonia was at her side the whole time: "A guide dog is way more than a guide. It's your companion. It's your guardian. It's your friend. It's someone who is going to be there with you no matter what."
And at that moment Dutchess stood up, wagged her tail, and gazed up at her new partner. She was ready to get to work. And she too had a smile on her face.