October 23, 2014
By Elisabeth Leipholtz '15
Two of the newest members of the College of Saint Benedict Class of 2018 spend a large portion of the day sleeping, scratching themselves in public and not participating in any classroom discussions.
But they may be the hardest working — and most important — members of the first-year class.
Meet Kelsey and Maddi, two guide dogs who help visually impaired CSB first-year students Michelle Lee and Katelyn Strangstalien go to class, navigate the lines at Gorecki Dining Center and make sure they safely make it back to their residence halls.
The women met through their mobility instructor, Diane Grunyson, three years ago and immediately hit it off. Like any college students, they have been forced to gain more independence since leaving high school and their one-on-one aids, who helped them to navigate the halls and provided assistance with school work. They are still receiving one-on-one assistance - it's just in canine form.
Lee, of Buffalo, Minnesota, and Strangstalien, of Brainerd, Minnesota, were both diagnosed at a young age with medical conditions which led to eventual blindness.
Lee was born with glaucoma, a disease which is rare in children and damages the optic nerve. After undergoing surgery resulting in a complication, Lee lost sight in her left eye at age 3. Her glaucoma didn't fully affect her until eighth grade, when she slowly began to lose sight in her right eye and eventually lost it completely.
Strangstalien was diagnosed with retinoblastoma (a type of eye cancer) at 18 months. At 22 months, her left eye was removed, followed by her right eye at the age of 3 when the tumor grew.
Before beginning their first year at CSB, the women decided to apply for guide dogs together. Both worked with an organization called Leader Dogs, which matches visually impaired individuals with guide dogs. In July, they spent 26 days at the organization headquarters in Michigan, during which they were matched with their dogs (Lee with Kelsey and Strangstalien with Maddi) and began working to establish a bond with them.
"I feel like our bond isn't complete," Lee said. "It takes six months to a year. We're working hard on it. I was scared when we were at Leader Dogs because they had to give me extra courses on how to be firm. She is my first dog ever and was 15 months when I got her, so she still had a lot of puppy in her."
Since this is the first time a student has had a guide dog on campus, it has been a learning experience for all involved. Accommodations were made so that the dogs are able to live in dorm rooms as well as attend classes.
Concerns about guide dog etiquette have also arisen. Occasionally, students pet or acknowledge the dogs, which distracts them from the task at hand - leading Lee and Strangstalien.
Community members should ignore the dogs, said Tom Sagerhorn, disability specialist at CSB/SJU. They should refrain from feeding or startling them, and simply ask the owner's permission if they really desire to interact with the dog. Community members are also asked to allow Lee and Strangstalien to pass to the front of the Link bus line in order to provide easier and safer access for the women and the dogs.
"It's also really helpful when people hold doors," Strangstalien said. "Sometimes we don't know if they are. The other day someone seemed like they were going to hold it and didn't, and Maddi's head got hit. It comes to a point where the dogs then won't go through doors because they're scared."
Since beginning classes at CSB, both women have worked with the CSB/SJU Disability Services office. The office works to make sure all students have learning tools to fit their needs — whether that need be a physical disability, psychiatric condition, learning disability, chronic disease or an attention deficit disorder.
Sagerhorn works with students such as Lee and Strangstalien to create a personalized plan and ensure that campus is accessible to them, as well as be sure that the community is aware of these needs.
"Both women are very social," Sagerhorn said. "They have a strong desire to get connected to the community, and wanted to reach out because people weren't approaching them. They want to make people feel comfortable approaching and talking to them, and to know it won't offend them if you ask them questions."
The community can also benefit from reaching out.
"It is going to be a difficult transition and the more we can welcome them as a community, the better," Sagerhorn said. "Better for them, but also for us. We have the opportunity to learn something from Michelle and Katelyn about making campus more accessible for them and people like them."
When Lee and Strangstalien do encounter obstacles, Sagerhorn assists them in finding a reasonable solution.
"In high school I had someone walking with me all the time, and in college I do everything on my own," Lee said. "They've actually hired someone to walk with me because I kept getting lost. I would like to do everything on my own, but it doesn't always work out that way."
Since doing everything on their own is nearly impossible, it is important that the community play an active role in assisting Lee and Strangstalien and their canine companions with their transition.
"We are a dynamic community and there are so many different things that happen on campus," Sagerhorn said. "The dogs are welcome at any public location. It's important for our community to understand that. We don't want to do just the minimum that is required by law. We should live up to our Benedictine values by warmly welcoming these students."