PUBLISHED SEPT. 15, 2016
By LOIS KINDLE
Sept. 10 was a huge day for Southeastern Guide Dogs, when it hosted the grand opening of its new $8.5-million Barpal-Hirst Student Center. The ultramodern facility was funded entirely by more than 700 individuals, small businesses and organizations and was named for lead donors Isaac and Margaret Barpal and Keith G. Hirst, residents of Palmer Ranch in Sarasota.
“This new addition to our growing campus is built with frugal quality and a strong adherence to the value of good stewardship of our donors’ contributions,” said Titus Herman, Southeastern Guide Dogs CEO. “And most importantly, we designed the building with our students in mind.
“We are committed to providing (them) with the highest quality experiences and services possible while they are under our care,” he continued, noting that after 34 years and nearly 3,000 guide dog pairs, Southeastern’s current facility has had its day.
Built in the 1970s, the original two-bedroom home has been renovated and refurbished numerous times over the years to accommodate the organization’s growth.
“It will be demolished; it’s literally falling apart,” Herman said. “We’re just going to help it along.”
From wall to wall, the building is filled with special touches designed to fully address the needs and comfort of sight-impaired students and veterans who come to Southeastern’s 35-acre campus for training with their new dogs.
For example, fenced-in covered patios directly off each student’s room features easy access and “canine” grass with sanitation drainage so the dog can relieve itself at minimal effort by its new owner.
The dorm rooms themselves have comfortable furnishings specially built and donated by Rooms to Go, which also furnished the building’s lecture halls and lounges. Each of the 12 fully functional, private rooms includes an Amazon Echo, a hands-free, voice-controlled speaker that plays music, answers questions and controls smart devices. Each also has its own bathroom, individual air conditioning controls, flat-screen TVs, mini refrigerators and automatic, adjustable illumination.
Three years in the making, the center also features a 150-seat dining hall for students, staff and volunteers; catering kitchen; staff offices and more. Its 8-foot-wide hallways accommodate two people and dogs passing side-by-side. Even water fountains include dog-bowl filling features.
(Refurbished Office Furniture) ROF provided the facility’s low-cost, refurbished office furniture, Plant Parents donated its live plants and a Publix grant helped fund its covered training pavilion. Original works from the Sarasota fine arts community hang from its walls.
“There’s no doubt that people have noticed how fast puppies grow around here,” said Hirst. “It seems like one minute they are tiny and playful, and the next minute they are embarking on a wonderful career as a guide dog. Well, we can say the same thing about the rapid growth of Southeastern Guide Dogs…This spacious new facility will expand (its) ability to help others, and each student will leave this beautiful student center with a world-class, life-changing dog.”
Issac Barpal echoed Hirst’s words.
“It’s truly impressive how this local organization is run and how it operates on (its core of) more than 700 volunteers,” he said. “There is nothing more satisfying to us than to go to a graduation and see the students with their dogs on the day they get their new ‘driver’s license’ and freedom.”
For additional information on Southeastern Guide Dogs, visit www.guidedogs.org.