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Manatee County Nonprofit Invites Visitors To Go 'Beyond The Dark'

Army veteran with his service dog
Army veteran Sean Brown and his service dog, Pella. THOMAS IACOBUCCI/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

Guide and service dogs help people with disabilities and stress disorders better navigate life's challenges.

A new program at Southeastern Guide Dogs is educating the community on what it’s like to go through life with vision loss and PTSD. The Manatee County nonprofit hopes the show will help people better understand their mission.

In "Beyond the Dark," the audience wears blindfolds while they listen to a simulation of a blind person navigating city streets. They also hear the sounds of combat and a veteran experiencing a night terror.

Two women wearing blindfolds at "Beyond the Dark" show.
Credit Thomas Iacobicci

Army veteran Sean Brown says the show allows people to become immersed in what its like to experience these challenges.

"But at the end of the day, you get to take that blindfold off,” he said. “For those of us that live with this, it's 24-7. This is our lives. But it's really giving people the opportunity to say, I get it. I understand."

Brown, who served in Iraq, suffered panic attacks after coming back to civilian life.  He talked of the rage and confusion he experienced whenever he was in a crowded situation. That changed, after he was paired with his service dog, Pella.

“Because of Pella, I’m making it through the darkness and finding my way to the light,” he said.

Southeastern Guide Dogs, based in Palmetto, provides the dogs at no cost.

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The new show also includes a live training demonstration starring  Astro, a two year-old Golden Labrador.

Katie McCoy and her guide dog, Bristol.
Credit Thomas Iacobucci
Katie McCoy and her guide dog, Bristol.

In "Beyond the Dark" visitors also hear testimonials from people who have been successfully matched with dogs. They share stories of how their canine companions have transformed their lives.

Sarasota’s Katie McCoy, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind, talked about walking through the bleachers during a high school sporting event and having a school administrator kick her out of the game and accuse her of intentionally banging into people.

She says without her guide dog, Bristol, it can be challenging to navigate the world.

"Sometimes it is scary to be out there and you can't find where you're going,” she said. “So when you're listening to that audio of "Beyond the Dark," I would assume that you feel some of the fear that we feel."

The hour-long program runs about four times a month at the nonprofit’s Palmetto campus.

14- year old Tyler Rasmussen of Sarasota recently attended the show on a school trip.

"It was really awesome and very touching,” he said. “It’s really special seeing the impact that dogs can make on lives."

Southeastern Guide Dogs is a financial sponsor of WUSF Public Media.