When Winnifred J., 94, first noticed a Fidelco guide dog team working together in downtown Branford, CT, nearly 50 years ago, she never believed she would be holding that harness. Winnifred remembers, “I was convinced you had to be completely blind, with absolutely no vision, to get a guide dog. So when I applied, I had little hope it would work out. But sure enough, just a short time later, I received my first Fidelco German Shepherd guide dog, ‘Happy.’ Her name was perfect; I was elated. I remember my first day with my trainer. We began in the middle of Branford and I felt as though I was on a cloud. I couldn’t believe I had my own guide dog.”
As childhood glaucoma deteriorated Winnifred’s usable sight over time, she remained undeterred. A lifelong athlete, Winnifred played competitive field hockey, basketball and lacrosse, later channeling this passion into a decades-long career as a physical education teacher. But when Winnifred’s vision became so limited she found herself routinely coming into contact with errant basketballs and tennis balls in her gym class, she was forced to retire.
Always committed to giving back to her community, Winnifred was the first archivist for her church and she still retains the title. She also became involved with her local garden club, making flower arrangements to brighten the days of patients in hospice care. Partnered with her fourth Fidelco guide dog in 2010, “Mona” — raised by Fidelco employee Kris Seller — Winnifred still lives independently and reflects on the powerful ways her Fidelco guide dogs have shaped her life.
“I was able to walk all over Indian Neck,” she said. “Someone would take me downtown and leave me to do errands and I could move around wherever I wanted to go. I would never have been able to accomplish all that I have without Fidelco. My white cane merely used to help me identify objects to avoid. Fidelco guide dogs ‘Happy,’ ‘Yarah,’‘Maya’ and ‘Mona’ have brought so many people into my life. They have allowed others to get to know me.”
On a recent visit to Winnifred’s home near the Long Island Sound, Mona, now eleven years old, attentively gazed at Winnifred as she spoke. As she got up from her chair, Mona came to her side — a well-worn invisible path to Winnifred quite perceptible. A moment later, they were ready and Mona led her partner out the front door and through the garden gate so Winnifred could tend to her beautiful roses.