Next month, Calvin Allison and his friend Jost will travel to Florida for a much-anticipated annual sporting event. It is not the Super Bowl, and Allison and Jost are not your average athletes.
Allison is blind and Jost is his guide dog. The sporting event is the 21st annual Southeastern Guide Dogs Walk-a-thon, during which approximately 550 guide dogs and their owners will walk to raise money for the non-profit organization that trains dogs to guide the blind and the blind to work with their dogs.
For Allison, who lives in Lincolnton with wife Billie, Southeastern Guide Dogs has been a lifesaver. Yet this organization is one Allison never could have predicted he would need.
â€œI used to be a truck driver,â€ said Allison. â€œI noticed my eyes were getting bad, so I went to the doctor.â€
A rare disease was causing Allison to lose his vision, and by May of 1997, he was legally blind. At first, Allison tried to get by without the help of a guide dog.
â€œI used to use a cane or have someone lead me,â€ Allison said.
All that changed five years ago, when Allison went back to school.
At Southeastern Guide Dogsâ€™ school in Palmetto, Florida, Allison spent 26 days learning how to work with Jost. In addition, Jost had to learn commands and become accustomed to Allisonâ€™s voice. The two bonded and Allison says he would not do without Jost now.
â€œHeâ€™s a good dog,â€ said Allison. â€œI wouldnâ€™t trade him for any human being to lead me around.â€
When Allison first lost his sight, he spent four months at the Governor Morehead school, a school for the blind in Raleigh that boasts Ronnie Milsap as an alumnus. Even with all he has learned and the tremendous help Jost has been, the couple still feels the challenge of Allisonâ€™s blindness on a daily basis.
â€œItâ€™s been hard,â€ Billie said. â€œYou have to learn to leave things in the same place. Itâ€™s been five years and I still have to keep reminding myself over and over.â€
Their upcoming trip to Florida will provide a break in routine for the couple, as well as the opportunity to help a cause that is so much a part of their lives. Allison worries that many people in this area may not know much about guide dogs and admits that he has not always been so knowledgeable himself.
â€œWhen I went down there, Iâ€™d never seen a guide dog,â€ said Allison. â€œI didnâ€™t know how they were supposed to act.â€
At Southeastern Guide Dogs, canines are trained to work with the blind, as well as epileptics and people in wheelchairs. For dogs who aid the blind, there are 40 commands to learn. According to Allison, the process of training a dog is ongoing.
â€œThe training never stops, and itâ€™s not as easy as people think,â€ Allison said. â€œYouâ€™ve got to have patience to work with a guide dog when you get home. Thereâ€™s a lot of work to a guide dog, but theyâ€™re worth it.â€
The purpose of the Southeastern Guide Dogs Walk-a-thon is to raise money to allow the organization to continue the work it does in training dogs and teaching their owners how to use them. Participants need sponsors to help raise the funds the organization needs to operate. According to Allison, finding sponsors has been difficult.
â€œItâ€™s hard to get sponsors around here,â€ said Allison. â€œThey donâ€™t know anything about guide dogs.â€
Allison thinks the lack of willing sponsors may be due to that fact that people do not consider going blind as something that could happen to them. He understands that; he used to be the same way.
â€œPeople should realize that anyone can lose their sight at any time,â€ Allison said. â€œI never thought about losing my eyesight. I had 20-20 vision.â€
The Allisons have inquired about sponsors all over Lincolnton for the past few years and have had little luck. Although the Lions Club does make annual donations to Southeastern Guide Dogs, this is clearly a cause in dire need of support.
If the problem is a simple lack of awareness, it may be due to the fact that, according to Allison, he is the only person in the area who has a guide dog.
â€œIf there are others, Iâ€™d like to know because Iâ€™d like to meet them,â€ said Allison.
Weather permitting, the Allisons will travel to Florida on Feb. 21 to participate in the walk-a-thon three days later. Rather than staying in a hotel, the couple will take the opportunity to let Allisonâ€™s four-legged companion visit with some old friends.
â€œWeâ€™re going to stay with the people who raised Jost,â€ Billie said.
Despite being ready for the walk-a-thon, Allison is not looking forward to the flight to Florida, although he says he may be more afraid of his wifeâ€™s driving.
With time running out and no sponsors to speak of, the Allisons are still looking forward to the trip. One thing about which they have no worries is their dog. As a product of Southeastern Guide Dogs, Jost is a pro.
â€œThese dogs are better behaved than children,â€ Billie said.
Want to sponsor Calvin Allison and Jost in the Southeastern Guide Dogs Walk-a-thon? You may contact Calvin or Billie Allison at (704) 732-0297.
by Allyson Levine