ADAMS TWP — Thanks to the kindness of a North Carolina man, Max Lamm of Adams Township enjoys his education at Mars Centennial School, hanging out at friends' houses, and perusing the merchandise at his favorite sporting goods store.
Max, 11, was gradually blinded from chemotherapy and radiation treatments after his diagnosis of stage-five cancer in both eyes at 9 months old.
While he could read Braille at age 3 thanks to the diligence of his parents, Eric and Lisa Lamm, Max hated the cane normally used by the visually impaired.
While the Lamms were initially unable to find an organization that would provide Max with a guide dog, Eric Lamm eventually found MIRA, a Canadian organization that would change the boy's life.
The Lamms submitted an application after discovering that Bob Baillie, of North Carolina, founded and operated MIRA U.S.A.
MIRA provides guide dogs to children age 11 to 17, who are trained during a one-month residential program at MIRA's facility in Montreal. It is the only organization that provides guide dogs to children.
Baillie and his guide dog, D.J., attended the Cranberry Township Noon Rotary Club meeting last week to raise awareness about MIRA Foundation U.S.A.
Baillie told club members that he received a guide dog after losing his sight as a result of open-heart surgery at age 64. He then discovered that no organizations existed in the U.S. that provide guide dogs to children.
Baillie partnered with MIRA to found an American branch, and the organization provided its first guide dog to an 11-year-old girl named Cricket in 2010. Since then, MIRA U.S.A. has provided 17 children with St. Pierre guide dogs, which are a cross between the highly intelligent Burmese Mountain Dog and the hardy Labrador Retriever.
The dogs are named for MIRA's founder and guide dog trainer, Eric St. Pierre.
Lisa Lamm, who also attended the meeting, told Rotarians that the advantages of Max navigating life with the help of a guide dog continue to astound the family. Max received his guide dog, Seal, in July 2012 after an exhausting monthlong training in Montreal.
Lamm said that Max must do all of Seal's care. She said at school Max announces what class he needs to attend, and Seal leads him to the door. Max then says “My chair,” and his furry companion leads him to his assigned seat in that room.
“The Mars School District has embraced Max and Seal,” Lamm said. “There is a picture of Seal in the yearbook with a caption that says 'Seal Lamm.'”
Mars Centennial School Principal Todd Lape said it took preparation, but Seal is now a fixture in the school and part of its culture.
Lape said Max and Seal came to the school in late summer to train on the building's layout, so the dog would be able to guide Max from the bus, to classes, to lunch, and back to the bus at dismissal.
A schoolwide assembly was held on the first day of classes to go over the protocol of having a guide dog in school.
“It was ground rules about how to act around the dog, like don't pet him,” Lape said. “The dog is here working, so treat him like a teacher walking down the hallway.”
He said a letter to parents before the start of school caused the readjustment of a few schedules due to allergies, but there have been no complaints.
“Our parents have been very understanding,” Lape said.
The only issue that cropped up, Lape said, was Seal barking during gym class when he couldn't see Max. A visit by St. Pierre immediately alleviated the problem.
“He came to the school and gave him two commands, and it never happened again,” Lape said. “It's really amazing.”
Regarding the call of nature, Lape said Max and his full-time paraprofessional aide take Seal out the back door at a set time each day.
“It's been a real learning experience for me as leader of the building,” Lape said. “It's been a wonderful experience for everybody, it really has.”
Baillie visited the school last week, and Lape said that Baillie was very impressed with the experience.
“He said not all schools are so accommodating,” Lape said. “Having Seal is a great opportunity for all of us to learn, and that's why we're here.”
He said these days, Seal is just another feature of the Centennial School.
“If a student has to sharpen a pencil, he just steps over the dog,” Lape said.
Outside of the classroom, Max and Seal continue street training. Lisa Lamm said her family frequently visit Mars and Zelienople, where Seal can practice crossing streets and navigating sidewalks with Max.
“That dog knows every bakery and dog store in Zelienople,” Lamm said.
Baillie commented that in addition to providing navigation help to blind children, guide dogs also serve as a natural magnet to their owners' peers that provides a steppingstone to socialization.
“If a student is using a cane in a school hallway, it's like the parting of the Red Sea,” Baillie said. “If he has a dog, the other students are interested. The social bridge to the community is absolutely amazing.”
Baillie said professionals at MIRA's training facility are impressed with Max, who is the country's youngest guide dog owner.
“Max is crossing four or five lanes of traffic with the guide dog,” Baillie said.
Lamm said she and her husband are careful to avoid treating Max like he has a disability, instead preferring Baillie's idea that the blind have “an inconvenience.”
“We always told Max he will be the only person that holds him back from doing anything,” Lamm said.
She said Max recently quizzed his parents about Harvard before declaring the Ivy League institution to be a post-high school goal.
“I really believe he will go to Harvard,” Lamm said. “I know he can go forward in life independently and do amazing things.”
Lexi Smith is another teenager who has been accepted into the MIRA training program. The Seneca Valley Middle School eighth-grader was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, which causes blindness.
Lexi says she can't wait to travel to Montreal for her guide-dog training.
“I think it will be really fun to meet other people going through the same experience as me,” Lexi said on Tuesday. “I know blind people, but these people will have dogs and we can get together.”
She said her future guide dog will probably get along with the family's boxer-beagle mix, Jinx, because of the high level of training provided by MIRA.
Lexi, who is wise beyond her years when it comes to her blindness, said, “I was born without vision so I don't know any different from being able to see. It's just what I'm used to.”
Regarding cost for the guide dogs, Baillie said each dog provided by MIRA is about $62,000. He said families are never charged for the animal, but are asked to help fund raise for the next family accepted to the training facility in Montreal.
For their part, the Lamms are planning Dining in the Dark, a signature MIRA fundraiser in which the corporate executives in attendance eat all courses of their meal with blindfolds on to replicate the challenges the dinner table presents to those with visual impairment.
Eric Lamm is seeking $15,000 to $20,000 corporate sponsorships at Dining in the Dark, which will be April 27 at the Oakmont Country Club. Those willing to provide a tax-deductible sponsorship or who are seeking more information can contact Lamm at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 724-776-2727, Ext. 27, or 412-260-7115.