MiRA Foundation USA is a national nonprofit based in Aberdeen, NC. It is unique in that it is the only organization in the United States dedicated to providing guide dogs to blind children and youth between the ages of 11-17, and they do so at no charge to the recipient.
MIRA was founded in 2009 by Robert and Elaine Baillie after Bob became totally blind following complications from coronary bypass surgery. Although he initially felt great despair at the sudden turn of events in his life, close friends convinced Bob to travel to MIRA Canada where he was paired with his magnificent Bernese Mountain guide dog, Devon. Both Bob and Elaine quickly realized that Devon was the key to Bob’s adaptation to life with his new challenges, and they decided that they wanted to provide this opportunity to the underserved population of blind children and youth.
Today, two years after its inception, MIRA USA is a young but vital organization that can be very proud of the work they have accomplished. In 2010, in only the first full year of operation, MIRA paired two dogs with students: one an eleven year old girl from the San Diego, CA area, and the other a young man from Durham, NC who is now a student at Stanford University. The girl became the youngest person in the US to ever have received a guide dog, and just over a year later she and her dog are thriving. She is an honors student, speaks three languages, plays three musical instruments, and has won gold medals in mathematics and braille competitions. Even better, she is remarkably well adjusted and confident with her dog. In fact, both students are thriving.
Although MIRA USA is a separate legal entity from MIRA CA, we work together in very close partnership, since our dogs and our students are trained on the MIRA CA campus, and we benefit from the thirty year history MIRA CA has with training guide and service dogs, including twenty of those years as the only organization in the world dedicated to training guide dogs for children. In the last twenty years they have paired approximately 200 students with dogs and have never had a rejection. This is a tribute to MIRA CA’s careful breeding, selection and training of dogs, as well as their meticulous assessment and training of student candidates. MIRA’s global reputation is undisputed and well earned.
In July of 2011, MIRA USA sent six students to Canada for training in preparation for receiving a guide dog. Two of the students were from the Sandhills area of NC, two from Raleigh, one from Fayetteville, and one from Aiken, SC. All six students passed the month long session with flying colors, working eight hours per day, six days per week to master the necessary skills to navigate safely and confidently with their canine partners. Since their return home, the students have had one follow up training session at their home base with a MIRA trainer and will soon undergo a second session. As safety is the paramount concern for both student and dog, MIRA does not cut any corners in assuring that every pair develops a strong working partnership. To this end, MIRA will conduct as many follow up sessions as necessary; however, this rarely exceeds three.
The staff at MIRA USA is not only responsible for searching out potential MIRA guide dog recipients, but also ensuring that all paperwork is completed and assembled on time, scheduling and overseeing assessments and follow up visits, and of course, raising the necessary funds to make the pairings possible. Our signature fundraising event, Dining in the Dark, is a semi-formal dinner that is held in a country club environment where the diners don blindfolds from the time they sit down to the main course until dessert is served. MIRA has held this event two successive years in the Sandhills, and once in Raleigh, with events scheduled for the Spring of 2012 in the Sandhills, Raleigh, and Charlotte. Dining in the Dark is not only a revealing event, it has also proven to be fun as people gain awareness about the challenges of chasing cherry tomatoes around a salad plate or simply getting food to their mouths without dropping it everywhere when they cannot see what they are doing.
Other fundraisers include our annual Fall Miles for MIRA FunRun Walk and Dog Costume Competition, Dining for Guide Dogs where participating restaurants donate a pre- determined percentage of the day’s receipts, and our ongoing MIRA Goes Green campaign that involves collecting used cell phones and ink printer cartridges for recycling on a monthly basis.
And, of course, MIRA regularly applies for appropriate grants, and generates an annual direct mail appeal, typically around the year- end holidays. A young foundation is always focused on securing funds until that time in which they have established an endowment. Unless they are exceedingly lucky, an endowment will be several years out on the horizon.
Future plans for MIRA USA include the establishment of a training center in Moore County which will serve as a facility for training guide dogs and the students being paired with them, as well as a center for all blind and severely visually impaired to access resources such as an audio library, appropriate job training, social activities, and whatever other needs are identified. Obviously, the establishment of such a center will be dictated once again by funding, either through a generous individual or corporation, or some other committed entity. MIRA believes, however, from our own research and the feedback from professionals in the field of blind assistance that this facility represents a very real need in the area.
Finally, MIRA will continue to educate the general population about the challenges faced by the blind and the ways in which a guide dog assists in mitigating those challenges. Over the last two years, Bob and Devon have addressed over two thousand Moore County fourth graders in partnership with the Moore County Pet responsibility group. While Pet Responsibility teaches children to advocate for their pets, MIRA teaches them about the ways in which a guide dog advocates for its owner. They have also spoken to dozens of civic, church, and general groups seeking to learn more about the blind and guide dogs. It is a never ending challenge, but one that Bob, and MIRA , takes very seriously.