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Graduations Showcase GDB's Mission in Action

Wednesday February 07, 2024

Derek Dittmar speaks into a microphone during a Graduation ceremony on our California campus. Volunteer Puppy Raiser Annie Martin stands next to him. Colorful GDB banners are in the background.

If you haven’t seen or been to a Guide Dogs for the Blind graduation, you’re missing an opportunity to experience our mission in action! About twice a month, GDB holds public graduations on our campuses in California and Oregon to celebrate new guide dog, K9 Buddy, and orientation & mobility clients. At a recent graduation on our California campus, client Derek Dittmar gave a powerful testimonial about his bonding experience with his second guide dog, Valentino.

Guide Dog for the Blind (GDB) client Derek Dittmar is a civil defense attorney who lives in Raleigh North Carolina with his wife Brooks. In his spare time, he writes and performs music and enjoys spending time with friends and family. In January 2024, he was partnered with his successor guide dog Valentino, a male yellow Labrador Retriever. Derek spoke at a recent GDB Graduation on our California campus celebrating their new partnership.

Derek began his talk by describing his first walk with a guide dog. “For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing it, I really can’t explain to you the feeling of freedom once you pick up that handle for the first time and say ‘forward,’ said Derek.

Derek admitted he was a bit nervous when he was first paired with Valentino and began training. His first guide dog, Howard, had captured his heart and he worried that he may not have that same connection with Valentino. But while training with Valentino, Derek says he came to the realization that the human capacity for love is not a zero-sum game. “I’ve learned that the heart isn’t a reservoir, it’s a conduit. And the day that I met Valentino, I felt like my heart opened, and I felt anew by all of those same emotions: the wonder, the freedom, the comfort and the support, and the independence, and the humility, and the pride, and the feeling that you will never be alone again. “To put one word on a lot of words--which lawyers don’t do very often--I felt love.”

Derek told the graduation audience he also feels gratitude for GDB’s extensive network of support. “I know that I have joined a massive community of people that love and are grateful for Valentino and who know exactly how special of a boy that he is. It takes a village to raise a guide dog, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge that village.”

Derek thanked GDB’s staff and volunteer puppy raisers like Annie Martin. “I don’t know if you knew this, but you raised a pretty good dog, Annie, and any success that he and I have as a team is a shared success with you.” He also thanked Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Halli James-Ogasawara. “You raised and trained a pretty good boy, too. Granted, you had a pretty fantastic canvas to work on, but every moment you spent with him, every bit of your heart, and your talent, and your time that you poured into this dog is reflected in his wags and in his work.”

Derek went on to thank GDB’s donors who make it possible for clients like him to receive a guide dog and ongoing support services free of charge. “GDB works hard to make sure price is not a barrier to independence, and they can only do that with your support.” He thanked donor Elizabeth Jones who sponsored Valentino’s harness. “I will think of your generosity every time I pick up the handle.”

Last, but not least, Derek thanked Valentino or “Val” as he affectionately calls him. “It’s an old name that according to the internet--which is always accurate--means healthy, and steady, and strong, and that is exactly what you are. And you don’t know it yet buddy, but we’re going to have some really good years.

Watch the entire graduation ceremony on YouTube.

Check out when the next graduation ceremony will be held

Learn about our Guide Dog Program

Donate to support future guide dog teams

Categories: GDB Alumni, GDB Community, GDB Graduation