If there is one thing that 2020 has taught us, it's that the simple act of taking a walk in your neighborhood can bring a sense of normalcy, and perhaps a spark of joy, to our daily routines. For Marta Van Leuven, a longtime client of Guide Dogs for the Blind who is currently between guide dogs, COVID-19 gave her the ideal impetus for sharpening her pedestrian travel skills using a white cane so that she could safely enjoy her neighborhood excursions while she awaits being paired with her next guide dog. Marta enrolled in our Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Immersion Program, which has been offering limited one-on-one, home-based training sessions during the pandemic. Marta recently completed the free five-day course.
"I was interested in doing GBD’s O&M Immersion Program because it was being offered during the pandemic with all the necessary protocols for staying safe - including wearing masks and maintaining social distancing at all times," Marta said. "Plus, the training would take place in my home area - the instructor and I would meet up in front of my house for each of the five days and we would work on my actual neighborhood travel routes."
In addition, Marta welcomed the chance to work with GDB's O&M Services Manager, Marc Gillard, with whom she has a long and fond history. "Marc was a part of my O&M training for three of the five days, which pleased me because I’ve known, trusted, and worked with him as in his past role as a GDB field representative with two of my former guide dogs," she said. Marta also got to work with Angela Smith, GDB's newest orientation and mobility instructor.
"The program was exactly what I needed because I had only received very minimal O&M training - about 2-4 hours over a month’s time, about 30 years ago," Marta said. "Having relied almost solely on my three former guide dogs for travel outside the home, my cane skills were spotty. When my last precious guide, Martine, was retired in July 2019, I had to cobble together routes that I could travel using my cane, and do my best to make them as safe as possible. Not surprisingly, I was pretty anxious, and obviously, I was in dire need of some type of intensive O&M training."
Thanks to the O&M Immersion Program, Marta gained many new and valuable travel skills. "It’s difficult to quantify all that I've gained from this program, because nearly everything was new to me," Marta said. "From learning how to hold and use the cane properly, to maintaining effective and comfortable body and hand positioning, to learning how to better listen to the traffic. There were so many things I learned that are invaluable to me and my safety."
"I am very grateful that I had two highly experienced experts in their field to work with," Marta goes on to say. "Throughout the training, both Marc and Angela were supportive and positive about my progress. They inspired me to think and feel that I could truly develop these new skills - like using all of my senses to their full potential while walking along - something I had never fathomed I could actually do. Even when I would start to feel a bit frustrated with my inability to do something right the first time, Marc assured me that it would take time and daily practice to gain mastery over these skills, and that it wasn’t going to just magically happen after completing the program. And Angela’s good humor, respect, and sensitivity to my needs inspired me to trust her and move forward with the process with good energy and a sense of being fully supported. Over the hours spent together with both of them, I began to develop more faith and courage that I would be able to do this!"
Marta would wholeheartedly recommend GDB's Orientation and Mobility Immersion Program to others. "The training gives you the tools and skills for safe, efficient cane travel that can translate to working with a guide dog as well," she said. "In addition, it will actually begin to enhance your own senses and awaken your awareness and consciousness of what is around you - something necessary for a pedestrian who is blind. I am delighted to start moving through space more efficiently and with more relaxation at a nice walking pace. That was a huge gift to me."
With her now-solid foundational travel skills, Marta is even more ready and eager to be paired with her next guide dog. "I have had three precious guide dogs so far and am looking forward to welcome a fourth into my life journey as soon as possible," she said. "I cannot begin to describe what each of these marvelous guides have provided for me in each and every aspect of my life. Perhaps the best words to sum it all up would be: they gave me joy, happiness, and freedom."
Congratulations Marta - we can't wait to see how far you'll go!
Please visit the Orientation and Mobility Immersion Program page on our website to learn more about this FREE program!