ENGLEWOOD — Born with what’s often called a “lazy eye,” Englewood resident Cheryl “Cheri” Sytsma suffered headaches, double vision, dizziness and depth-perception problems.
Hero, her new guide dog, recently helped her become independent.
The circumstances that brought the woman and the Labrador retriever together began a long time ago.
Sytsma’s abnormal eye development, called amblyopia, has affected her for years, and over that time her symptoms have worsened. She overcompensates for her poor peripheral vision by favoring her left eye. It creates a struggle with reading.
She stopped driving, left her job as a massage therapist, and began falling more frequently.
“It became harder to get out,” she said. “My mother drives. I also use the SCAT Plus transportation system to get places. I just felt too dependent on other people.”
Two years ago, she became a relief volunteer for a local puppy-raising group, Southeastern Guide Dogs. She attended several training classes. After many hours of training, they transition into guide dogs.
On her 63rd birthday, Sytsma received a gift: Her new 2-year-old female Labrador retriever that helps her with everyday tasks.
Sytsma recently spent three weeks at the Palmetto campus of the Southeastern Guide Dogs working with Hero, who is 65 pounds. She stayed in a dorm-like setting with six others in the 301rd class of recipients to receive a guide dog.
During the three-week session, Sytsma learned commands to give Hero. They also went to the The Mall at University Town Center. They learned to interact with others in a mall setting. The went to downtown St. Petersburg and walked around, to experience real-life situations.
“Hero is very much a go-getter, and she wants to learn and to teach me to do the right things,” said Muffy Lavens, spokesperson for the Southeastern Guide Dogs. “Cheri and Hero are both friendly and observant ladies who like being in the middle of things, and now they have each other.”
Now, when Sytsma wakes up and takes a shower, Hero is in the bathroom. Then the two go for a walk. Hero is already giving Sytsma more independence to go out and engage in life again.
“I’ve been able to go play cards with some neighbors and Hero … lays down under the table. When it’s time to leave, we leave,” Sytsma said. “When I cook in the kitchen, I have an area for Hero to stay and she’s not under my feet so I’m not worried about tripping or falling. I have two cats and she’s getting acquainted with them. They are about at the point where they cuddle.”
During her stay, Sytsma met six new friends from other areas of Florida and Illinois, Kentucky and South Carolina. They were all paired with their guides — two came as returning alumni receiving successor dogs and five as first-time handlers.
“They bonded with each other and their new furry best friends, sharing diverse backgrounds and circumstances but one singular goal on living their best lives,” Lavens said. “We have a 30-minute TV series called ‘Dogs of Destiny’ on the Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Facebook and YouTube pages or on our website at guidedogs.org/dogsofdestiny. The next one is 1 p.m. Friday and gives the history throughout our 39 years we have been operating. It also explores stories of our graduates and puppy raisers. It’s worth watching.”
Sytsma didn’t pay for the dog. After completing training, she and the six others received a harness, leash, collar and free dog food and wellness visits for their dogs and a year’s supply of flea and tick medications.
“She’s a blessing. She’s a great dog. She is my hero. It’s been a life-transforming gifts of freedom, independence and adventure. Hero is helping me to feel better about getting out and about. She’s helping me feel more secure to interact with others.
“I am hoping I can get involved in other things, including some on Dearborn Street. There’s a lot happening with pandemic restrictions lifting. It will be good to get back out there and enjoy things again.”
For more information, visit www.guidedogs.org or call 941-729-5665.