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Southeastern Guide Dogs gears up for annual Suncoast Walkathon

The Suncoast Walk-a-thon has become Southeastern Guide Dogs' biggest walk-a-thon that also raises the most amount for the nonprofit.
The Suncoast Walk-a-thon has become Southeastern Guide Dogs' biggest walk-a-thon that also raises the most amount for the nonprofit.
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The Concession’s Alex Jeanroy led her temporary dog, Marcel, around East Manatee Fire Rescue Station 1.

She gave Marcel time to interact with firefighter Diana Zacher so the dog could learn not to be frightened of a firefighter in full gear. 

Jeanroy, the club leader for Lakewood Ranch Puppy Raisers, went to the fire station along with other puppy raisers for Southeastern Guide Dogs. All the dogs explored the firetrucks and gear. 

The trip to the fire station was one of the group’s “exposures” for the month that help prepare the puppies to become guide dogs or service dogs for Southeastern Guide Dogs. In their training, Jeanroy said the puppies are taken to Main Street at Lakewood Ranch, to movie theaters, and to libraries, among other public places to get accustomed to those places Those trips also help the puppies become familar with various modes of transportation. 

One important exposure for the dogs in March will be the Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Suncoast Walkathon on March 2 at Nathan Benderson Park. 

Jennifer Bryan, the director of Philanthropy for Southeastern Guide Dogs, said the Suncoast Walkathon is the nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser of the year. The Suncoast Walkathon is one of five in Florida with the others taking place in St. Petersburg, Tampa, Gainesville and Orlando.

The Lakewood Ranch Puppy Raisers take their dogs to various locations to expose them to different environments like East Manatee Fire Rescue Station 1.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Collectively, Bryan said the walkathons raise more than $1 million per year. 

The Suncoast Walkathon at Nathan Benderson Park has become the biggest event out of the five walks in terms of participants and money raised, Bryan said, which wasn’t always the case. She said the growth in the event could be a result of the nonprofit’s campus being located in Palmetto so more people are aware of it, along with its mission. 

The money raised from the walkathons go toward supporting the nonprofit’s mission and programs including its genetics reproduction program, breeding, puppy training and expenses for those receiving the dogs to remain on campus while they are trained how to handle their new service or guide dog.

“Every penny raised through these events is going straight toward the mission and it changes lives,” Bryan said.

Bryan said it costs thousands of dollars to support and train each dog before they are given to someone who needs it at no cost. 

There also is a team that follows up with the beneficiary and the dog to ensure they’re successful together after the dog has graduated from Southeastern Guide Dogs’ programs. 

Bryan said everyone is encouraged to bring their furry friends to the walkathon, and everyone who comes to the event will receive a Southeastern Guide Dogs' bandana.

Firefighter Diana Zacher pets Summer, a 7-month-old puppy being trained through Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Photo by Liz Ramos

“It is a party in the park,” she said. “People love their dogs and when you bring your dog to an event, it just adds another level of happiness, especially seeing all the different breeds and shapes and sizes of the dogs.”

The walkathon also will be an opportunity for people to learn about becoming a puppy raiser, puppy sitter or puppy starter. 

Jeanroy said it takes a village to raise the puppies to ensure they are ready to serve someone who is visually impaired or a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Puppy-raisers care for the puppies when they’re 8 to 12 weeks old for 12-16 months. Sitters are available to take care of the puppies If the puppy-raisers need to go on vacation or take a break. Puppy starters care for puppies for a few months before they are matched with a puppy-raiser to begin training.

The nonprofit always could use more puppy raisers, puppy sitters and puppy starters, Jeanroy said.

Jeanroy said she enjoys watching not only the puppies' progress in their training but she likes seeing the puppy raisers progress as well. She said in the Lakewood Ranch group of puppy raisers, there are four who are new to the job.

Jeanroy said the puppy raisers go from believing they will struggle to mastering the craft. 

She watched with pride as the puppy raisers led their dogs around the fire station and saw the puppies listening to every command and adjusting to the new environment.



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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