Southeastern Guide Dogs broke ground on its new Barpal-Hirst Student Center in March of 2015 and on Friday, celebrated its grand opening in Palmetto. But it’s been a nine-year process to complete what Southeastern CEO Titus Herman called a, “A dream come true.”
“It’s everything I hoped it would be and more,” Herman said. “This is representative of how our community came together, and it’s the community that built this place.”
Southeastern Guide Dogs operates solely on private funding and donors. Margaret and Isaac Barpal and Keith G. Hirst have been intricately involved with the organization. The Barpals funded the agency’s state-of-the-art veterinarian facility while Hirst funded the new canine assessment center. The philanthropists joined forces to help fund the majority of the $8.5 million student center, but in all, there were 700 donors.
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“It wasn’t just us,” said Isaac Barpal. “But I feel very good we made the right decision. This is a local asset and like the White House belongs to the people, this building belongs to the people. But a building is only as good as the people in it and this space is proper for the job they are doing here and will continue to enable them to continue that work for decades to come.”
Not a single detail pertaining to the needs of the visually impaired students going through training with their guide dogs was left out. From custom designed furniture to acoustic tiles keeping the noise down in common areas to marked railings guiding the students down 8-foot-wide hallways, the layout is designed to make the experience as comfortable as possible.
We don’t want to be the biggest. But we do want to be the best and we are.
Isaac Barpal, donor to the new Barpal-Hirst Student Center
“We don’t want to be the biggest,” Barpal said. “But we do want to be the best and we are.”
Hirst reflected on the limitations of the old student center that created challenges for those with vision disabilities.
“This facility has been so much needed almost from day one,” said Hirst. “Southeastern just plain outgrew itself and we were working in cramped spaces.”
Hirst said the new facility is everything he imagined it would be to support Southeastern’s mission.
“My theme when doing something like this, focuses on growth and ensures a brighter future,” Hirst said. “This place fills that bill. I want it to grow and will support anything to ensure that happens and improves operations and efficiency.”
Don Olinger, a 2013 graduate said the differences between the new and old student centers is all about the “attention to detail that will make the experience good and safe. It’s just unbelievable. In the old center, you couldn’t even talk to the person next to you if everyone was talking and acoustics are very important to the visually impaired. The new student rooms have private relief areas for the dogs right outside the room.”
Olinger graduated with his dog Ralphie, “who has changed my life. I came to Florida after I couldn’t work anymore. I had no hope, no future and I came to Florida to die. That sounds extreme, but it’s true. Then I came here and thanks to Southeastern and Ralphie, I have found meaning in my life. I have found hope for the future.”