By Ronni Diamondstein Photos by Grace Bennett for Inside Chappaqua Magazine
Two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning returns to Westchester this month to serve as Most Valuable Player and host of the 35th Annual Guiding Eyes for the Blind Golf Tournament. For the sixth year in a row, Manning, the New York Giants quarterback, will use his celebrity status to spotlight a remarkable organization that brightens what could be a dark world for the visually challenged and blind.
This June, Manning will tee off with fellow golfers at the Mount Kisco Country Club. The Louisiana-born football star found his way to this Westchester event thanks to a family friend, Pat Browne, who is a champion blind golfer, winning this tournament 23 times. “Five years ago, Pat Browne called my dad and asked if I would host the Guiding Eyes golf event. Since then, I’ve gotten to witness what Guiding Eyes does and how people’s lives are changed. It’s been very rewarding,” Manning told golfers and supporters at the event dinner last June.
In this economy, not-for-profits have trouble raising funds to meet their needs. “Eli Manning is a big magnet,” says Bill Badger, Guiding Eyes President and CEO, “and we’re privileged to have him.” Last year, the event raised over $650,000 for this organization that provides guide dogs and services for the visually impaired and blind. Badger adds, “Anytime you have a person of Eli’s stature involved, it attracts awareness. He believes in what we are doing and is a genuine and sincere advocate for our mission.”
Guiding Eyes for the Blind is dedicated to enriching the lives of blind and visually impaired men and women by providing them with the freedom to travel safely, thereby assuring greater independence, dignity and new horizons of opportunity. The organization runs an internationally accredited, not-for-profit, guide-dog school with a more than 50-year legacy of providing the blind and visually impaired with superior Guiding Eyes dogs, training, and lifetime support services at no cost to the individual.
For the past few years, the Guiding Eyes has cast a wider net to help people. In 2008, they launched a new program “Heeling Autism,” which offers service dogs to autistic children. These children have poor impulse control and “Heeling Autism” dogs are trained to prevent a child from bolting into traffic or some other kind of danger. They help keep the child safe and provide many other benefits to the family. To date, 32 dogs have been placed locally.
The two day tournament begins on Sunday June 10th at the Mount Kisco Country Club where the country’s top blind golfers compete in the Corcoran Cup, the Masters’ Invitational of the United States Blind Golf Association. “The whole weekend is wonderful,” says Dick Pomo, a blind golfer from Green Valley, Arizona, who makes the trip east along with his Guiding Eyes the Guiding Eyes are shared, and the organization’s accomplishments of the year are celebrated.
“It’s a feel good day,” says Pomo. “When you sit in the room at the dinner you can feel the warmth. The whole evening is about people giving.” People who can’t attend can help by participating in an online auction and the raffle of a 2013 BMW and a pair of Rolex watches.
Not all dogs trained by Guiding Eyes have a successful career helping the blind. Some dogs start the program, but for one reason or another cannot serve as guide dogs. These dogs are released for adoption. Chappaqua native Bob Malmgren,Vice President of Sports Sales for CBS, got involved in the tournament when his wife Gina adopted one of these dogs. After Gina adopted her dog, Pierre, she changed her career by becoming an Administrative Assistant to Dr. Jody Sandler, Director of Veterinary Services. The Malmgrens now have two of these dogs.
A member of the Mount Kisco Country Club and an avid golfer, Malmgren says it was a natural fit for him to join the classic and help find sponsors. “A lot of our CBS guys are well connected and we jumped right in to help find sponsors and donations.” Malmgren played a big role in securing transportation to the classic for the blind golfers. “I reached out to a friend who runs Southwest Airlines and the blind golfers were flown in free.”
While Malmgren modestly says he’s a small part of the event, he is part of a big group of volunteers and his contribution in getting other donors and support is huge. “The event has continued to grow for 35 years and yet we’ve managed to keep it fun and dynamic without losing the original charm,” says Michelle Brier, director of Marketing and Communication for Guiding Eyes. “This is a testament to Guiding Eyes and believing in what we do.”
There are people who’ve been involved since the beginning. “I go to lots of events and Guiding Eyes is a first class golf event. We never have a problem filling two courses,” says Malmgren who is also a member of the Guiding Eyes Golf Classic Committee. Volunteers make the event happen. Malmgren says that like Eli, every single person involved with Guiding Eyes for the Blind has the same qualities as the Super Bowl hero but they just play on different fields or stages. “We all share the same passion and understand our mission. Everyone involved is an MVP and champion.”
For Pomo, the event is like coming home. “At Guiding Eyes, I feel like part of a family. Eli Manning represents the school and brings in so many people.” Manning continues to be a proud participant and supporter: “It’s amazing what someone with vision impairment can accomplish with a guide dog, and how a child with autism can live his life and allow his parents to breathe a little with a “Heeling Autism” dog. It’s an honor to be a part of this,” says Manning. For more information about the 35th Annual Guiding Eyes for the Blind Golf Classic go to www.guidingeyes.org/ news-events/events/golf/ or call 914.243.2208
Ronni Diamondstein, owner of Maggie Mae Pup Reporter is a Chappaqua based freelance writer, PR consultant, award-winning photographer and a School Library Media Specialist and teacher who has worked in the US and abroad.
Eyes that Guide and So Much More
Doug Frost, a longtime employee of the Chappaqua Village Market, knows first hand the value of a Guiding Eyes dog. His mother, Lucretia Frost, of Verplanck, New York, now has her second guide dog, Cindy, a black Lab. She got her first dog, Venice, 17 years ago and clearly values the experience. Not only does Guiding Eyes train dogs, but it trains their future owners as well, at a school in Yorktown Heights. “My first stay at Guiding Eyes was in February 1995,” says Lucretia. “You could not meet a nicer group of people. They were all so helpful and concerned about your needs. My second visit was in April 2008, and again, it was great. The complex was beautiful and all the accommodations and amenities made it a comfortable place to stay.”
There are many benefits in having a Guiding Eyes companion, and Lucretia is keenly aware of them. “One of the most important feelings for me is that your dog gives you the freedom to do things on your own.”
Once you have a guide dog, you are not left on your own. “Guiding Eyes keeps in contact and is a great help if any problems arise. The vet’s office continues to take care of Cindy wonderfully.” There is mutual trust between Lucretia and Cindy. “These dogs are so well trained you can go anywhere and feel safe,” says Lucretia. And once Cindy is off duty, free of her harness, she is a loving pet and member of the family.
– Ronni Diamondstein