Appearances Can Be Deceiving

A man came to town recently in a Ford F250 truck with four dogs in the back — nothing too extraordinary for an area that is home to thousands of horses and dogs.

However, this man did not come to ride or hunt. Instead, he drove 1,000 miles to do what he has fervently dedicated the last 30 years of his life to doing: training and pairing guide and service dogs with blind and physically challenged children and adults.

He and his trainers from the renowned MIRA Canada Foundation are the only ones in the world fully committed to training guide dogs for blind youths between the ages of 11 and 16. Remarkably, they have paired more than 150 youths with dogs since 1991 and have never had a rejection. The purpose of this trip was to assess seven MIRA USA guide dog candidates from the Carolinas to determine if they were ready to manage a dog.

Although the numbers are impressive, the real story lies with the man, Eric St. Pierre.

My family lived on sayings like, “Be careful what you wish for because you might get it.” One that I heard often was, “Never mind about appearances; it’s what’s inside that counts.” As a child, I didn’t always understand the full implication of these phrases. However, time often fosters wisdom, or at least provides a frame of reference.

Which brings us back to Eric. If you were on Broad Street on a recent Sunday afternoon, you undoubtedly saw him. If you did, you probably wondered what an unshaven, wild-haired man in rumpled jeans, and walking with a strong limp supported by a cane, was doing trailing behind an innocent-looking blind child walking next to a guide dog in harness.

Oh, yes, and don’t forget the wide, black-framed glasses that cemented the impression of beatnik or mugger in disguise, depending upon the extent of your generosity of spirit.

What Eric’s appearance belies is this: He is the founder and CEO of a major Canadian nonprofit with branches in Brazil, France and the United States, an accomplished sailor who has successfully competed in major J-boat races, a singer, an actor, and a man so in tune with canines that he could rightly be called a dog whisperer, though he himself has little use for titles.

Here is someone so passionate about serving the lives of those who are physically challenged that his every waking moment is focused upon improving their lives. Consequently, he appears most days as though getting dressed was an afterthought.

However, the blind children and the dogs do not see or care about Eric’s outward appearance or many accomplishments. What they know to be true is that his voice has so many different tones and inflections it is mesmerizing. They know that he is firm but fair, readily hugging, offering praise or petting.

They quickly learn that, unlike many adults, Eric says what he thinks and means what he says. Consequently, he is easy to be around, since you always know where you stand with him whether you are human or canine. The blind students recognize that he truly cares about what they think and how they feel, because when Eric asks questions he listens quietly to their answers, and his responses are sensitive and insightful.

Eric St. Pierre came to town with far more than four incredibly obedient and joyful guide dogs and a ­talented apprentice trainer. He came with an unbridled passion for life and a total commitment to serve others, even walking on an injured leg for hours each day because he had made a promise and would not disappoint.

A well-known Zen saying reads: “Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost. Take heed, do not squander your lives. You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were ­raging in your hair.”

To spend time with Eric is to fully understand “a fire raging in your hair.” If only everyone would care less about outward appearances, more about ­others, and find their own fire. What a brighter world it would be.

Beth Daniels, of Southern Pines, is executive director of the MIRA Foundation, based in Aberdeen. Contact her at bdanielstempi@hotmail.com

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