Leader Dog Guides Student to Success at Southeast

by News Bureau on Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2012

News_Puckett_2012

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., April 25, 2012 – Sindy Puckett of Jefferson City, Mo., with her faithful companion, Eleanor, at her side, is set to cross the stage at Southeast Missouri State University’s spring commencement ceremony May 12, making her the first legally blind student to receive a graduate degree from the institution.

Accompanying her will be her beautiful Labrador Leader Dog, Eleanor, dressed in a cap and gown specially tailored for the occasion by Herff Jones.

Puckett will receive her Master of Arts in English.

Puckett, who spent the last couple of years earning her graduate degree, was born with congenital cataracts, a clouding of the lens of the eye, and has since developed glaucoma. Two months before receiving Eleanor, she had cornea transplant surgery, and she said she never knows what she will be able to see each day. She can only see light out of her left eye and can sometimes somewhat see out of her right eye, which is sensitive to light because of her transplant.

Her condition is hereditary; Puckett’s father also has congenital cataracts, and Puckett said she is lucky to have parents who understand her condition. She said she was treated just like her sighted sisters growing up and maybe even a little harder, which has helped her become the strong person she is today.

Puckett said the people at the University have also helped push her to be her best.

“Southeast has a really great English faculty,” she said. “Professors here are really very understanding and supportive. They are straight with you about what you need to accomplish and have never made me feel less because of my sight. And, they know me by name. They recognize me and say hello when we pass each other in the hallway. I’m not just a number to them.”

Puckett said the greatest opportunity she has had at Southeast has been to grow as an individual and in knowledge, and she has done this with help from her professors and the Disability Services staff. Emily Oliveira, coordinator of Disability Services, has been a tremendous help, according to Puckett, since she first walked with Puckett and Eleanor around campus.

“Sindy has been a joy to work with, and I am sure I speak for the rest of the staff in our office when I say that she will be a missed on campus in the fall semester,” Oliveira said.

Puckett said the biggest obstacle she has faced has been getting accessible books, electronic books she can read using her CCTV, a digital magnifier, or her VictorReader, a digital talking book player. Oliveira helped Puckett navigate through this obstacle as well, talking with publishers, negotiating for copies of accessible books and searching through Bookshare, an organization that offers accessible books for people with print disabilities.

“Emily is amazing. Anything I have asked, she has done,” Puckett said.

Eleanor, who has been by Puckett’s side since October of 2006, helps Puckett get to her destinations safely and then instantly becomes the object of everyone’s affection. If Puckett’s smile and energetic personality do not make enough of an impression, her gentle, friendly sidekick does. People constantly swoon over and ask to pet and play with Eleanor, who loves her squeaky ball and treats, which are “the key to her heart,” according to Puckett.

“I don’t think I could describe in words what Eleanor has meant to me. She has opened up the world to me and has become an extension of my left hand. Without her I would have never come to Southeast, because I would not have had the courage to face an unfamiliar environment alone. She has given me courage to do things,” she said. “She is my best friend in the whole world and the most amazing dog.”

Eleanor will retire this summer, and Puckett is scheduled to receive a new Leader Dog in July from Leader Dogs for the Blind. Puckett said she found the organization online and was excited to discover that she was eligible to apply for a Leader Dog. After getting a physical, visiting an eye doctor, and giving six references, Puckett’s application was approved, and she was allowed to bring Eleanor home. She will have to go through this procedure again for her new Leader Dog, with the exception of only having to give three references this time.

Until it is time for her to meet her new companion, Puckett and Eleanor will continue to rely on each other. Eleanor is trained in intelligent disobedience, so when Puckett tells Eleanor to cross a road, and a car is coming, Eleanor refuses. Eleanor also stops Puckett at curbs and at the top and bottom of stairs. She also lets Puckett know when it is safe to go.

“When I was afraid to cross the street, she would look back, tap her nose on my knee, jet her head out and throw her body into the front of the harness like, ‘I got this,’ so I would trust. We would go, and the more times we did that, the less afraid I became,” she said, adding, “We are a team. We both bear parts of the load. Eleanor’s job is to keep me safe, but I must know where to go.”

Puckett has several places to go on campus. She is a member of Delta Alpha Pi, the honorary society which recognizes the academic accomplishments of University students with disabilities, facilitates the development of leadership and advocacy skills, and provides opportunities for members to serve as mentors and role models.

Oliveira said Puckett has excelled in the organization.

“She has taken an active and enthusiastic role in Delta Alpha Pi and has become one of our strongest voices on campus as an advocate for students with disabilities,” she said.

“Everyone has been so accepting and open,” Puckett said. “I’ve met so many people from different places, and it’s great to have an organization that recognizes those with disabilities who are good students.”

Puckett also belongs to Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), a place where students can explore spirituality from a Christian perspective, learn what Christianity has to say about college students’ lives, and practically live out Christian principles of love and service together.

“It’s been so much fun getting to know everyone in Cru, which is a place to get to know other people and grow and make friends who push you to do your best and make you smile when you have a bad day. Cru provides a good time to talk,” she said.

Puckett is also a part of the Baptist Student Center on campus.

“My friends here are awesome,” she said. “Academics take more time for someone with a disability, so being a part of these organizations has helped me stay connected.”

Puckett, who resides in Henderson Hall, said living on campus has been fun and has helped her get involved. The student-centered aspect of Southeast, she said, drew her to the University. When deciding among colleges, Puckett said she visited Southeast and found the campus to be inviting and friendly. People in the area told her they were happy with the University and its reputation, and she found the cost to be reasonable, she said.

Puckett received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.

She currently plans to return to Jefferson City after graduation to find a job teaching English at a small four-year or community college. She said she wants to keep her options open, however.

“The scariest part of graduating is not knowing what will happen next, but this is also what makes it so exciting,” she said. “I’m ready for anything.”