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North Hills Monthly

Mars Students Raise Money To Fund MIRA Dogs for the Visually Impaired

Jul 30, 2014 11:16AM ● By Clare Heekin Lynch

Max and Seal

Mars Area Centennial and Middle school faculty teach their students about the importance of giving back through annual fundraisers, so when Mars fifth- and sixth-grade students learned that their friend, Max Lamm, was receiving a seeing-eye dog from the MIRA Foundation, they decided to help.

Learning that, from birth until the actual pairing with its owner, a seeing-eye dog costs around $60,000 to breed, house, raise and train, the students chose to donate all of the money from their 2013 and, subsequently, 2014 fundraisers to the foundation.

Mars Centennial Principal Todd Lape couldn’t be more proud of the student’s hard work in raising nearly $6,000. “The various events, including a pajama day and sports jersey day, are completely driven by the staff and students,” Lape said. “It was fantastic to see how generous and excited everyone got about giving back and helping others out.”

Max, now 13, was diagnosed at 10 months of age with bilateral retinoblastoma (retina cancer in both eyes), according to his mother, Lisa Lamm. “He endured eight months of chemotherapy, followed by low-beam radiation to both eyes,” she explained. The results of the treatment left him with light perception in his left eye and low vision in his right eye.

“That didn’t stop him,” said Lamm. “He used the vision he had to its optimum! He loved to read, so he used a computer that zoomed in on the text for him; he loved to draw, and he loved to play football and soccer—he was so good at tracking the ball!”

Over time, though, Max slowly lost his remaining vision. “But he did so with so much grace and bravery,” continued Lamm. “To put a white cane in his hand made me mad because he was, and still is, so young.”

In order to help their son be more like his friends, Max’s parents began scouring the Internet to find a guide dog organization that would provide a partner to an 11-year-old child. “Most organizations have age requirements that start at 17 or 18 years old,” said Max’s dad, Eric Lamm. “MIRA founders believe differently and have proven that an 11-year-old, physically fit child who has extremely strong orientation and mobility skills can stand up to the challenges and responsibilities of handling a guide dog.

“The child has to completely care for the animal himself,” he added. “This means feeding, grooming, brushing the teeth and cleaning the ears, giving medicine...the dog needs to know that the child is the caregiver.”

The MIRA Foundation believes that age should not dictate if a child is allowed to have a dog. According to Foundation President Dr. Marijanet Doonan, pairing a dog with a child includes an extensive application, followed by a visit to North Carolina to be evaluated, followed by a one-month trip to Canada, where the specially bred Mountain Bernese/Labrador mixes are raised and trained. After training, the dog’s handler visits the student’s home and trains the dog in its new environment, which includes ‘mapping’ the house, the neighborhood and the school.

“It is extensive work,” Doonan shared, “but to see the sense of self-reliance and confidence in a child is simply amazing.”

Max’s parents agree. “Irrespective of how confident a teenager may appear on the surface, there are a tremendous amount of insecurities during those years,” said Eric Lamm. “No child wants to be perceived as different from their peers, and having a physical impairment may deter some children from wanting to interact with them. Max is no different, and his perception of being blind and mastering the use of the white cane led him to have some reservations.”

When parents and son discussed the possibility of being eligible for a guide dog, Max’s tone differed. “He concluded that not many of his peers would view the guide dog as a potential deterrent and that, instead, they would want to approach him and discuss the cool dog. Max’s conclusion was correct.”

Paired with dog partner, Seal, in July of 2011, Max has continued to soar. He now works hard to ‘pay it forward,’ hosting several fundraisers over the past two years with the support of the school district, local businesses and family and friends, to raise money toward helping other kids receive a dog. In fact, he has raised enough money to provide three dogs to other children, including a girl in Cranberry Township. “The MIRA organization really does wonderful work and they’ve provided Max with a level of independence and confidence that a white cane could not,” said Eric Lamm.