Hi I’m Gemma – I’ve been a student, trainee, volunteer and member of staff at RNC. This is my story about my life at RNC and the journey I went through to get my Guide Dog.
I grew up in a small town called Leek near Stoke on Trent and I was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) which is an inherited, degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment. I came to RNC to study my A-Levels in 2000 then went on to Liverpool John Moores University but left during my first year after realising that it wasn’t for me. After living at RNC, which is a residential college, for three years I felt like I had already done the living in halls of residence thing and just wanted to go out and earn some money.
I really wanted to come back to Hereford but couldn’t get a place so lived in nearby town Leominster. I fell pregnant and moved back in with my mum until my son, Ethan, was born. I moved back to Hereford when Ethan was three months old and got myself a flat but found it impossible to get a job so I was a stay at home mum until Ethan was three.
Training and working at RNC
Through the job centre I found out that there was a lone parent scheme at the time where I could come and study again at RNC as an adult trainee whilst Ethan was at nursery. So in 2008 I trained for my NVQ Level 2 in Customer Service and once I was qualified I became a TEP (transitional employment post) worker at the RNC, when this ended I moved onto being a volunteer, then I became a member of bank staff before finally becoming a bona fide RNC employee in 2011 when I became a Corporate Office Administrator, which is still the job I am doing today.
What I think of my job and the RNC community
Working at the main reception means that I am always at the heart of what’s going on, I have a lot of interaction with current students supporting them with work based learning, there’s always a variety of things to do and there is a real community feel at the college.
As I have experienced the RNC all the way from being a student to becoming staff, I feel really proud to have been a part of it. I’ve definitely seen a lot of changes and the culture is different now than how it used to be, college are tighter on the rules (which I think is probably a good thing)! But it’s still a place that I adore and I absolutely love being a part of the RNC family. But by far the fondest memory I will always have of the RNC is whilst working here I also met my husband Tim, whom I married in 2011.
My Guide Dogs journey
I was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), which is an inherited, degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment, and over the past two years I have noticed that my eyes are gradually getting worse. As a result of RP, I also suffer from night blindness and I thought that having a guide dog would help me to maintain my independence and not have to rely on my husband Tim all the time. I wanted to be able to train with a guide dog while I still have my sight.
First contact with Guide Dogs
I first made contact with Guide Dogs in September 2013 when I called their information line. They asked a lot of general questions, wanting to know about my eye condition and why I had decided to get in touch with them now. I was referred to a lady named Carol, we had another telephone call and she arranged to come up to visit me at work at the RNC in Hereford. When I met with Carol she had a big questionnaire with lots more questions to ask about me, my eye condition, my work life, my home life, what preferences I had etc.
Carol told me that it takes two years to train each dog and, at Guide Dogs, they try and pair up the dog with the owner based on size, characteristics etc. and make sure that in any potential match the dog and owner meet before they undertake training together. I originally requested a Labradoodle (Labrador and poodle cross) because my son Ethan suffers from pet hair allergies and Labradoodles are known to moult less.
My Guide Dogs assessment
Before Christmas 2013 I had a second visit from Carol and this time I had a vision test which included looking at flash cards to see what shapes I could see, books with variations of shadows and finding out what my fields of vision were. As people need to have good movement in order to qualify for having a dog, Carol assessed my mobility and awareness. We went into town with my cane so that I could be assessed on how I get around and my awareness in busy environments, around other people and cars etc. I then had a house viewing to ensure that my home and garden was suitable for a Guide Dog and I was told that I had passed the relevant tests to move onto the next stage.
My first training session with Guide Dogs
In January 2014 I had a home visit from Karen, another representative from Guide Dogs. We had to go over everything that I went through with Carol and repeat my mobility assessment; vision tests etc. to make sure that the results were accurate and to make sure that I definitely still wanted to apply.
Karen comes up to the RNC regularly to train with the students so I already knew her and felt much more relaxed, which is a good thing considering the embarrassing walk she made me go on; Karen got hold of a harness and pretended to be a dog! I had to practice putting a harness on her, and actually walked down the street with Karen pulling the harness as if she was the dog! We had to practice basic commands, being authoritative in my tone of voice and positioning when stopped etc. It was a good technique to use as I was laughing a lot whilst learning some important basic training.
Making a perfect Guide Dogs match
I had originally said that I wanted a Labradoodle because they don’t moult as much but Karen warned me that they aren’t as reliable so I agreed that I would try and see how I get along with a Labrador or Golden Retriever.
Training with a potential Guide Dog match can often take place at a Guide Dogs centre and can be up to two weeks – as I explained I have a young son they have agreed that they would adapt the training so it can take place at home instead, which was so much easier for me and my family.
Karen went through the criteria matches that I would like in a dog and I told her that I would prefer a more sensitive dog as our house can sometimes be busy but not manic and as I work in an office I would need a quiet dog that’s not too lively. Karen explained that she would inform her assessors of all the information that I had given her and then when a dog is ready they would go through their list and see who most closely matches in terms of personality etc.
When I met Ida
At the start of March 2014 I got a call from Guide Dogs to say that they had matched me with a dog named Ida. The process all happened so quickly and the very next day I met Ida and we went for a walk with Guide Dogs trainer, Helen. Ida seemed nervous at first; she didn’t come straight to me because she didn’t know who I was. But that night she stayed over at my house, we had to check from the beginning that my son, Ethan, wasn’t allergic to her hair and luckily he wasn’t so training started the following week.
I had two intense weeks of training with Ida, she stayed with me at my house but we couldn’t go out unless we had a Guide Dogs trainer with us. The training was pretty full on; we practiced routes to work, to the shops, to town and on the bus. But our training was only in the mornings so the afternoons and evenings were spent at home and this gave us a great opportunity to bond and our whole family fell in love with her. Ida’s really girly like me – she wears a pink collar with diamante bones across it. Ida gets on so well with Ethan; they play together throwing Frisbees and running around together. My husband Tim adores her too; when we’re at home she always goes to him.
My dream trip to New York and leaving Ida for the first time
A couple of days after Ida completed her training with me I went on a holiday to New York for five days. Tim bought tickets for me and my mum as a surprise Christmas present. Although I was really excited about the holiday it was strange leaving Ida behind; it felt as though something was missing. Once I got to New York I had a fantastic time and we did everything; helicopter rides around the city, boat rides around the statue of liberty, Rockefeller centre, Empire state building, Times Square, Bloomingdales and lots of shopping! It was a jam packed few days and I was shattered by the time I got home. I was really excited to get back to Ida as I’d missed her a lot.
My life with Ida now
At first having a new Guide Dog puppy was like having a baby – Ida had a routine where she had to be fed and go to the toilet. She would get bored and need attention, when at work she used to get up every time someone walked past; she was very nosey and playful but has calmed down a lot now.
When I first returned to work with Ida she was initially a bit nasty with other Guide Dogs around campus, she growled but in a playful way as she wasn’t used to other dogs. Other than that I’ve had no real problems with Ida; she’s fine and healthy and I keep in touch with Helen the Guide Dogs trainer.
Getting back my independence
Now Ida has got used to being with me she knows I have to be strict with her, especially when I really need her at night as I can’t see in the dark. It’s completely different to having a white stick which you control, I have to have complete trust in Ida guiding me at night which is why the bond we have is so important.
At the moment my sight is stable but everybody has their off days and better days. It’s unpredictable now as to when it will all go wrong. Having Ida makes me feel so much more independent, I no longer have to rely on other people. Even something as simple as going to the cinema at night; I would have previously had to have Tim come with me but now I have Ida I can go on my own, or take Ethan. Even when I’m around places I know, having Ida guiding me makes me feel much more confident.