BRADENTON -- Before receiving their diplomas, they were read excerpts from Dr. Seuss' book "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" and told the sky was now the limit.
"Where do you want to go?" Titus Herman, chief executive officer of Southeastern Guide Dogs, then asked the nine visually impaired students graduating from a 26-day training with their new guide dogs.
Jo Ann Kane, Greg McLaughlin, and Debbie Cirasuolo were among the 210th graduating class on Thursday who will now go back home to continue their lives with a new companion by their side.
"There's still hope, if I lose all my sight I'll be OK," Cirasuolo said as her voice cracked with emotion.
The nine dogs are about two years old and will now protect and guide their handlers who are from Florida and other parts of the country, including Kentucky, South Carolina, and Alabama. Some are labradors, others, like Luke, are goldadors - a mix of golden retriever and labrador, said Jennifer Bement, spokeswoman for Southeastern Guide Dogs.
On Friday, the non-profit based in Palmetto will be unveiling plans for a new 5,500 square feet state-of-the-art veterinary center that will help provide better care for the dogs, Bement said. The center has raised at least $1 million and was still fund-raising to build the Margaret & Isaac Barpal Veterinary Center, she said.
The organization currently provides medical services to dogs in 550 square-foot, repurposed storage area, Bement said.
As the population ages, more people are becoming visually impaired and the need to have guide dogs is increasing, she said.
Bement said the new center would have many features, including a surgery room, laboratories, and an isolation ward for sick dogs.
Suzy Wilburn, director of student services and admissions at the organization, said she got her own guide dog, Carson, in September 2011.
Wilburn was declared legally blind in 2005, she said. Carson, her yellow labrador, made her feel "empowered," she said.
"Carson has absolutely turned my life around," Wilburn said. "I feel safe."