SOUTHERN PINES — As a blind man, Bob Baillie walks down busy Broad Street often enough to know it is 75 steps from the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue to the first dip in the sidewalk. When he hits the first crack, it's 60 steps to the corner.
This intimacy with the concrete would be impossible without Devon, a 110-pound Bernese mountain dog who works for cookies and ear scratches. Before Devon, Baillie would knock into light poles, wander into traffic and curse the surgical accident that left him in the dark three years ago.
Freed and inspired by his wet-nosed companion, Baillie, a Southern Pines businessman, decided to connect blind people nationwide with their own guide dogs, focusing on children as young as 11. In a little more than a year, his Aberdeen-based Mira Foundation USA has arranged trained animals for an 11-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy, and five North Carolina teenagers wait in the pipeline.
"I thought it was a wonderful idea," said Cricket Bidleman, the 11-year old, in San Diego. "I'll be a lot safer at school, and I'll have a friend to talk to at home."
Baillie's work is expensive and uncommon. Guide dogs cost roughly $60,000 once training is complete, putting their help beyond the reach of many families. Also, guide dog groups often require that blind children be 16 or at least in high school before getting dogs, making rare exceptions.
For Baillie, it's a chance to lift depression out of his own life and fill a gap for potentially hundreds more. He hopes his foundation will grow into a charity that places 30 dogs a year, one wagging tail at a time.
"Very few of us get the opportunity to really do something for human beings," said Baillie, 66. "Just the fact that you can get up in the morning, grab your dog and go for a walk by yourself."
In North Carolina, more than 200,000 people report visual loss, a definition that runs from total blindness to serious difficulty seeing even while wearing glasses, according to a 2008 report from the American Foundation for the Blind.
Of that group, more than 11,000 are ages 5 to 17.
Blind children aren't typically thought to be mature enough to handle a guide dog before they're 16, though exceptions have been made for 14-year-olds, said William Krol, spokesman for the New York-based Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.
"When you're a guide dog handler, you have a commitment not only to yourself, but also to your dog," he said.
Sally Bidleman, Cricket's mom, argued that guide dogs should be provided according to need and ability rather than age. She tried every agency in the country, she said, before finding Mira. Cricket navigates the halls of her school, including the stairs, on her own each day. When her dog arrives this summer, the school will hold an assembly to orient Cricket's classmates on how to approach her companion.
"It's like somebody getting eyes, almost," she said. "It's like getting another sense."
'You'd rather be dead'
Baillie's blindness struck three years ago during what was supposed to be a simple bypass surgery. The incision cut an artery, he said, and he lost blood to his eyes while he bled. He knew the surgery might be fatal but never received any warning about blindness. To date, Baillie has received no compensation and believes he will have to fight to get any.
"Taking a choice between croaking and being blind," Baillie said, "for the first couple of days, you'd rather be dead. Try crossing the street with your eyes closed."
Before the surgery, Baillie worked in both dentistry and real estate. For the first year, he struggled with a cane, forcing himself to listen to traffic - a requirement, he said, for getting a dog.
"He would just plow into things and he never slowed down," said Kathy Szyja, his director of operations at Mira. "He needed this dog to keep him safe."
Devon came from the Mira Foundation in Quebec, and while Baillie was there, learning to walk with him, he learned that children in America rarely get dogs. When he asked about it, he said, he heard an it's-always-been-that-way explanation. So borrowing the Canadian name for his own group, he started Mira USA.
'Dinner in the Dark'
It operates as a nonprofit out of an office in Aberdeen with minimal staff. Fundraiser meals and runs boosted its treasury. Now, to raise money, Mira hosts dinners (there's one on Friday) where the guests eat blindfolded. The dogs all come from Mira in Canada and a lot of the expense comes from flying eligible children to Canada, and the trainers to their homes. As Mira grows in Moore County, Baillie hopes to train dogs there.
For now, he and Devon rise each morning and make the three-mile trek from his horse-country house to downtown Southern Pines. For the first mile, there are no sidewalks. Before they reach a sidewalk, Baillie and Devon cross four streets.
But on Broad Street, everyone knows them.
"When you see a person walking up and down the street with a cane," Baillie said, "you're not likely to say hello. But when you walk up and down the street with a dog, let me tell you, it makes a huge difference. People driving by will roll down their window and yell, 'Hey, Devon!' Never mind Bob."
Staff researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.
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