When Marybeth Hearn was 10 years old, she asked for a puppy. But she wasn’t after cuddles and long walks. She wanted to train a guide dog to help blind people. Her desire became a lifelong mission.
When Hearn first approached her parents decades ago, the possibility seemed unlikely. Her mom didn’t like dogs, and her dad secretly doubted she would be able to find a sponsor to pay for the cost of the training.
Hearn was so determined, however, that she presented the project at a Lions Club meeting. She raised $2,500.
So on a summer day in 1962, the family welcomed a black Labrador retriever named Letta. The pup was the first of a long string of puppies-in-training.
For the next almost 60 years, Hearn raised dogs to assist visually impaired people—56 of the service animals! But the former agriculture teacher’s legacy doesn’t end there. An example of doing good to others and leading by example, (1 Timothy 4:12, Titus 2:7) Hearn inspired several family members and dozens of students to turn out many more helper hounds.
Two sons and a granddaughter have followed in Hearn’s footsteps. But her greatest impact has been mentoring a generation of student puppy trainers. Since 1992, her recruits have worked with 170 dogs.
Student trainers spend 14 months with each puppy. They teach skills like house-training, walking on a leash, and behaving in public. The dogs live full-time with the students, attending classes and field trips to become socialized.
“If you can imagine a classroom with 21 under-a-year-of-age puppies and 30 kids, it’s quite the extravaganza,” Hearn says.
Dogs then move to certified trainers from Guide Dogs for the Blind. When the pups graduate, the group pairs them with two-legged companions. Canines not up to the difficult task of assisting the blind sometimes work as other kinds of service animals.
After classes went virtual in March due to the coronavirus restrictions, the puppy training program continued. Students came to the school for what Hearn called “socially distanced play dates” in the fields, with dogs “running all over the place.” Even with the difficulties of 2020, Hearn’s students completed training with 12 puppies.
“It was great,” Hearn explains, “because it gave the kids a way to communicate with each other and not be so completely isolated.”
Guide Dogs for the Blind CEO and president Christine Benninger says Hearn’s work has had a “tremendous positive impact” for the nonprofit organization—and its recipients.
Hearn says, “I like doing something good for somebody I just haven’t had the chance to meet yet.”