Southeastern Guide Dogs to break ground Saturday on Barpal-Hirst Student Center in Palmetto

PALMETTO -- Southeastern Guide Dogs will take another step in its expansion Saturday when it breaks ground on its new $8.5 million Barpal-Hirst Student Center.

Margaret and Isaac Barpal and Keith G. Hirst are no strangers to Southeastern Guide Dogs and have been intimately involved in its growth spurt. The Barpals were the lead donors for the new state-of-the art Barpal Veterinary Clinic that opened in the summer of 2013, allowing for first-class health care for the dogs to be performed on site.

Hirst was the lead donor for the Keith G. Hirst Canine Assessment Center, lovingly referred to as the "freshman dorm" for puppies returning to the campus from their puppy raisers for more intense training. That facility opened last May.

The philanthropists joined forces again for the new student center to help pay for the majority of it. A five-month fundraising campaign tallied the additional $2 million to build the 30,000-square-foot facility that is expected to be completed in the spring of 2016. Fundraising continues for furnishings, fixtures and equipment for the building that will house students undergoing the month-long training side by side with their new guide dog.

CEO Titus Herman said the old building had served its purpose, but had reached a point where it could no longer be refurbished or expanded and had become costly to maintain. The new building will be more comfortable with a dormitory, dining hall and training facilities all within a single building.

"We're thrilled that our future students will soon enjoy these high-quality, new accommodations as we guide them on their journey to independence," said Herman.

The new student center is the agency's largest expansion in its 32-year history.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.