The Seeing Eye Inc. unveiled $20 million of creature comforts at its Morris Township headquarters on Friday.
But the escalator, that’s what everyone seemed to be talking about.
“I like having an escalator,” said Julie Carroll, as her new guide dog Coco led her up the grated metal stairs.
Crowded escalators are tricky for sighted persons. Imagine being a guide dog trying to lead your blind master up one of them.
“You need to make extra space,” said Julie, who traveled from Falls Church, Va., for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Seeing Eye’s new “escalator to nowhere” lets dogs and their masters get the hang of the mechanical stairways, forwards and backwards, without pressure from frenzied commuters and shoppers.
Other improvements installed over the last 18 months include a new presentation room for tours, a veranda with spectacular views for sighted visitors, a canopy to shelter students waiting for vans, a new heating/ air conditioning system and a parking deck.
Wireless Internet access, small refrigerators, sleeker bathrooms and individual climate control have been added to all 24 dorm rooms.
The idea is to make things pleasant for blind students from across the U.S. and Canada who spend a month on campus training and bonding with their new guide dogs.
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“Working with a Seeing Eye dog is not as easy as pulling up on a harness and moving forward. It requires study, hard work, and most of all practice. We want to do everything we can to make students’ stays as comfortable as possible,” said Jim Kutsch, president and CEO of The Seeing Eye.
Jim knows all about the rigors of training; Vegas, his newest guide dog, stood by his side during his presentation.
The world’s largest guide dog school will celebrate its 85th anniversary next year. It has trained 16,000 guide dog teams since 1929. Students pay a modest fee–$150 for their first dog, $50 for replacements–and everything else is covered by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.
Graduates who returned for Friday’s ceremony were impressed.
“It was very nice before. Now it’s more luxurious,” said Mike, a former truck driver who lost his sight 20 years ago in an accident.
In August, he trained at The Seeing Eye with his newest guide dog, a lanky German shepherd named Tango.
During the renovations, students stayed at the Dolce Basking Ridge. Hospitality lessons were not lost on The Seeing Eye, Mike said. “They picked up a lot of pointers.”
Renovations were accomplished with tax-exempt bonds from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. This marked the authority’s fourth partnership with The Seeing Eye since 1991, when it issued $9 million in bonds for the nonprofit’s purchase of the sprawling Morris Township campus, said Michele Brown, chief executive of the EDA.
“This is an example of what public and private partnerships can accomplish working side by side,” said Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist.), a co-sponsor of Dusty’s Law, which would increase penalties for reckless owners of dogs that attack guide dogs.
The Assemblyman brought a proclamation of congratulations from the state Senate and Assembly.
“It passed unanimously. That’s not something that happens very often in Trenton,” he said, getting a big laugh from Seeing Eye students and supporters.
Morris Township Mayor Peter Mancuso, Committeeman Scott Rosenbush and Administrator Tim Quinn also attended.
But the the warmest welcomes were reserved for guest who watched quietly from the back of the crowd.
“I get excited every time I drive up the driveway,” said Walker Kirby, an honorary lifetime trustee. Matriarch of the family that runs the F.M. Kirby Foundation in Morristown, she joined The Seeing Eye board in 1965. Her enthusiasm burns as bright as ever at age 89.
“I’m amazed at what goes on here,” Mrs. Kirby said. “I’ve never heard anyone complain about this place. I’ve been very fortunate all my life. To do something to help out makes me happy.”