One Man’s Journey to Independence
Robert Heidenberg, president and CEO of Heidenberg Properties Group and member of Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation’s Board of Directors, is partner to “Zoe,” his first Fidelco guide dog. Retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary retinal disease, gradually caused his vision to diminish over time.
Founded in 2013, his company develops, owns, and manages shopping centers, malls, and retail properties and undertakes redevelopment projects throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. Robert was also a co-founder of a predecessor real estate company that acquired and developed shopping centers and retail properties. Prior to becoming involved in real estate, Robert briefly practiced law in New York City.
He is actively involved in his community, serving as first vice president of his local synagogue. He is a board member of VISIONS/Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired in New York City (a rehabilitation and social services organization) and the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
Robert and his wife, Susan, an interior designer, have established the Robert and Susan Heidenberg Investigative Research Fund for Ocular Gene Therapy to support research leading to clinical trials in retinal gene therapy. They have also endowed a fellowship to support a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design.
The beginning of his vision loss occurred when Robert was a child. However, he excelled in several sports especially golf and skiing, received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania and Juris Doctorate from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University, and continued driving until his early 40s. When he could no longer travel independently, Robert relied on “somebody’s hand or shoulder” to continue his active life.
At a conference sponsored by the Foundation Fighting Blindness, Robert spent time with a Fidelco client and realized that partnering with a guide dog could be a way for him to regain his independence. He was particularly interested in Fidelco’s In-community Placement training model. This enables clients to train in their home communities rather than traveling to a residential training facility. It allows for incorporating home and work routines into training.
He applied to Fidelco and in June 2017 was accepted into the program. Four months later in October 2017, Fidelco Placement Specialist Peter and guide dog “Zoe” arrived to begin the three-week training process.
Robert describes the initial stages of training as a “frightening and difficult journey.” He was accustomed to being the decision-maker and now was learning a new and challenging set of skills, including placing trust in Zoe. He says that at the end of each day, he was “physically and emotionally exhausted.” He credits Peter with giving him both the training expertise and emotional support needed to continue. Robert says he slowly recognized that learning to work with a guide dog was like learning a new sport, and he began to relax more (both physically and mentally) while holding Zoe’s harness, and their movements became more fluid.
Robert and Zoe are now a successful guide dog team. He describes Zoe as his “hall of fame” guide dog and says she is “intelligent, tenacious, and focused” while working but also very sweet and loved by the entire family. “Zoe is a gift. I never really knew or appreciated, when I started on this journey, that my life and perspective would change so profoundly. Zoe has given me independence. She has empowered me to do things on my own that I long ago gave up…I feel like she and I are one.”