Lakewood Ranch’s Katie McCoy can barely remember a time before she had Bristol, a Labrador retriever, by her side.
McCoy was matched with Bristol through Southeastern Guide Dogs, a Palmetto-based nonprofit, six years ago after she had done research to find a guide dog to help her.
McCoy has retinitis pigmentosa, a rare, genetic eye disorder that involves the breakdown and loss of cells in the retina.
“I’ve always been legally blind,” McCoy said. “I used to hide it. I wouldn’t even use my cane, and I just made my life difficult for myself. Getting Bristol completely changed everything, and I would never go back.”
On May 1, McCoy, who is now an associate of philanthropy for Southeastern Guide Dogs, and Bristol will walk around McCoy’s neighborhood as part of Southeastern Guide Dogs’ National Walkathon Day.
Last year, Southeastern Guide Dogs held its walkathon at Nathan Benderson Park and had about 1,000 participants.
Due to COVID-19, the nonprofit has decided to make this year’s May 1 walkathon virtual and has expanded the event’s reach by making it a national event.
The goal is to have someone from every state in the country participate in the walkathon, which will help raise money and spread awareness of the organization.
“It’s going to be pretty awesome to see people in all 50 states participating,” McCoy said. “Our dogs are in 41 states.”
Participants can post photos and videos of their walks and use #NatWalkDay2021, #SEGuideDogs and #ProgressivePups to show their support.
McCoy was able to raise $1,050 last year, and her goal is to raise even more this year.
Southeastern Guide Dogs has a donor willing to match up to $10,000. Donors who raise more than $5,000 will be able to name a puppy and follow the puppy through its journey to becoming a guide dog.
Lake Club’s Mary Scharf will be walking with the Suncoast Puppy Raisers at Phillippi Park in Sarasota during the walkathon.
The Suncoast Puppy Raisers has groups from north and south Sarasota County and Lakewood Ranch that take the puppies from Southeastern Guide Dogs home for a year to help train them and expose them to what they might experience as service dogs.
McCoy said she looks forward to seeing puppy raisers during the walkathon.
“I love seeing puppy raisers because they are amazing to me,” she said. “They raise that puppy for a year, and then they come and give it back. I have no idea how they do that. It has to be incredibly hard. It’s awesome to go see these puppies and know that at some point they’re going to be changing somebody’s life or even saving somebody’s life.”
Scharf has always been an animal advocate, which is why she’s been volunteering for the nonprofit for 12 years.
Scharf will take one of her dogs, Marjorie, who is an ambassador dog for the nonprofit, with her to the walkathon.
“The walkathon is a way of keeping the Southeastern Guide Dogs in people’s minds,” Scharf said.