It’s a Zip!

I'm ready to zip off.

It’s heart pounding…it’s exhilarating…and it’s adventurous fun like you can’t imagine. After a visit to Zip Orlando Canopy Tours, I can now cross another item off my Bucket List…you know the list of things you’d like to do or goals you’d like to achieve before you die.

We're all harnessed and ready to go.
(L-R: Mary, Don, Dane, and Julia)

I, along with my boyfriend Don Welch, his son Dane, and his daughter Julia Presler (visiting from Hawaii) arrived at the nondescript building of Zip Orlando Canopy Tours and signed the typical liability releases indicating we wouldn’t sue if anything went wrong.

Zip Orlando’s  zip  lines are strung in the tree canopy out on an actual working cattle ranch in Kissimmee, Fla. The entire zip experience includes eight different cables averaging 65’ in height and varying in lengths from 225’ to 950’ long. There is no age limit, however they do have weight limitations from a minimum of 70 pounds to a maximum of 270 pounds. All tours are completely guided and there are no motorized machines for propulsion. The individual slant of the lines and your body weight and movements zip you along.

Julia excited to start the climb.

The tour’s numerous platforms, zip lines, and suspension bridges are intimately surrounded by an assortment of native trees and Florida wetlands. Overall the course includes eight lines,  totaling a mile of zipping cables suspended in the woods at the tree tops, along with three suspension bridges for a total of more than 300 feet of bridges. Zip Orlando offers daily and nightly tours with night groups receiving glow sticks for use on the glide underneath the stars and/or the moon. Due to its popularity, Zip Orlando requires advance reservations. They also require everyone to wear closed-toed shoes and pants or long shorts for safety and personal comfort in the harness straps.

Climbing to the top.

For those of you wondering if it’s safe…don’t worry. Safety is paramount to Zip Orlando and its staff. According to their Web site, Zip Orlando is part of a larger network of canopy tours owned, operated, or licensed by parent company Experience Based Learning, Inc. (EBL).  EBL is  recognized as the largest installer and operator of tours within the United States.  Zip Orlando is EBL’s only licensed tour in Florida as the requirements for training, operation, and safety are more stringent than other tours.  Zip Orlando operates to meet or surpass the Professional Ropes Course Association’s safety standards for Canopy Zip Line Tours. Prior to opening, the Zip Orlando course received a third-party certified Professional Engineer inspection and also passed inspection by the Florida Bureau of Rides. In other words, it’s a safe experience.

Don exuded confidence and fun.

We scheduled our zip experience for 4 p.m., however, due to nerve delays in the group ahead; we didn’t actually start out until closer to 4:30 p.m. We paired with six additional customers and our group of 10 climbed into Zip Orlando’s van and headed two miles down the road to a ranch owned and operated by the driver Erica’s family. Erica indicated her husband’s family have owned the land for many years with her son representing the ninth generation to actually live and work on the ranch. Along the way, she reviewed safety instructions and amiably chatted and answered various questions. Erica was great at calming our nerves.

Julia zips away.

Erica dropped our group off at an outbuilding on the ranch where we met additional Zip Orlando staff who helped everyone gear up in helmets, harnesses, and straps that included heavy-duty clips. Once more, a Zip Orlando staff member delivered  almost verbatim the same safety instructions imparted by Erica:  “Under no circumstances are you to grab the overhead zip line. If you grab it in front of yourself, you risk the possibility of having your fingers amputated. If you grab it behind yourself, you receive a free x-ray as it will slice your fingers down to the bones.” He also imparted that when we got out on the lines, that we should listen carefully to the instructions from our Zip Guides and “just have a lot of  fun.” Fortunately, once we got started, we quickly discovered there was never a sensation of actually wanting to grab the zip lines overhead.

Don and I stylin' in our safety helmets.

Once geared up, we walked a short distance to a set of open-grated stairs leading up to an open-grated platform high off the ground. Don stepped up to the plate and volunteered to go first and began climbing the 50 stairs to the first platform behind our Zip Guide named Dave. Dave instructed everyone to wait until the individual ahead had cleared two sets of  stair landings before we each started our own ascents. Looking upwards, I thought the platform at the top looked really high up; especially from my viewpoint standing on the ground.

Beautiful and fearless Julia.

I won’t lie…I was a bit nervous once I completed climbing the stairs and stood on the open platform with its bird’s eye view of the ground. Aligned with the tree tops, we could look down at our feet straight to the ground below. My senses were definitely awake and heightened at this point. I don’t know if my heart was pounding from the workout walking up the six flights of stairs or from the nervous realization at exactly how high up we were and that the platform had absolutely no rails. I think most people have a natural fear of heights to varying degrees and I am no exception.

Dane excited and nervous about the heights.

Friendly and trusty Dave greeted everyone at the top and efficiently clipped us to safety lines as we each ascended  the platform. The last on to the platform was Laura, our second Zip Guide. She is  small in stature, but makes up for it with a huge personality and joie de vivre. Both were young, exuberant, and promoted confidence in each of us as we individually approached zip lining with a combination of excitement and nervousness. A quick poll indicated everyone in our group were “Zip Virgins.” Dave and Laura reviewed the safety instructions once again and Dave provided a first-hand demonstration as he zipped over to the next platform to await our arrivals. He yelled out, “Clear to zip” indicating it was now was our turn to go.

Don shows off his newly acquired zip skills.

Don was first in our group to take off. Laura unhooked his clip from the safety line and attached it to the zip line trailing off to the next platform. I reached over and gave him a reassuring hug as he quickly and confidently stepped off the platform, let go of the hold line, and took off.  Anyone witnessing Don’s departure would have sworn he wasn’t a newbie as he made it look amazingly easy to step off a platform approximately 70’ in the air suspended on a wire by a clip and a few straps and glide off over the tree tops. At that point, it was obvious that the reassuring hug was more for me than for him.

I'm excited for the next line.

Next off was Dane. Even at 19, he isn’t embarrassed or shy to admit he has a genuine and major fear of heights. Earlier standing next to Dane on the first platform while waiting for the others to climb up, I noted his nervousness and white face. Neither had faded as he tentatively stepped forward to get hooked to the zip line. I even  thought to myself, “Oh God, this is not helping to calm me down.” I noticed he briefly hesitated to collect himself and took off without any problems. Next up, was his beautiful and fearless sister Julia. Excited and animated, she was ready to get the show on the road. Julia took off with a big smile on her face with absolutely no hesitation.

(L-R) Julia, Dane, and Don share their excitement.

I was next in line to go. For some reason, watching Don’s, Dane’s, and Julia’s departures provided me with an inner confidence as I witnessed no one died..no one had any sort of incident or accident…and no one had even let out a fearful scream. They actually looked like they all really enjoyed the experience. Laura expertly hooked me to the zip line and called out “Ready to zip!”  and Dave responded with “Clear to zip!” That was my cue. I took a deep breath to calm myself, leaned back into my  harness, let go of the hold line, and sailed off.

Father and daughter ready to race on a dual line.

I immediately became calm as I truly felt safe and secure. I let the exhilaration of being up high, zipping fast, and the feel of the wind whipping on my body and face take over. I did it! I conquered a fear and I had won. I had a huge smile on my face, my body pumped with adrenaline, and I remember thinking, “Damn, this is fun…REALLY, REALLY FUN!” I also remember mentally singing, “ZIP-a-dee-doo-dah, ZIP-a-dee-ay, my, oh my what a wonderful day!” with quite a bit of emphasis on the “Zip.” The experience truly makes you feel kid-like and leaves you wanting to giggle and spontaneously scream “Whoo-hoo!”

As we each came to the end of the zip line, Dave expertly steered and guided us safely on to the next platform. He unhooked us from the zip line and connected our clips to safety lines. As we waited for the rest of our group to zip on over, Don, Dane, Julia, and I animatedly shared our excitement and celebrated that we had all faced our fears and seized the moment. We couldn’t wait to get on the next line and to experience it once again.

Laura safely hooks Don on to the next line.

We watched from afar as each person in our group gathered the confidence to step off the initial platform and let go on to the zip line. An Indian couple in our group seemed the most hesitant and I believe the woman truly never got over her nerves at initially stepping off each platform. But, she never quit and always had a big smile at the end of the line as she arrived to the next platform.

The slant of the individual zip lines and the weight of each rider creates varying speeds as you glide along. After getting over initial fears, everyone gained confidence and learned various tricks of tucking, twisting, turning, and bouncing to zip across the lines even faster. We learned individual speeds on the zip lines can reach 30 mph and we were all determined to hit that mark. We soon began cheering and encouraging everyone in our group and even yelling “Go Uncle Kenny!” along with his niece. There are several platforms with dual lines that allowed us to race against each other which added to the overall excitement and fun.

Dane and I ready to race on a dual line.

About halfway through the experience, we zipped down to the ground for a water break. After the short break, we all climbed another set of stairs with 70 steps and continued our zip tour. To add to the fun, Laura and Dave encouraged everyone to tell jokes on one platform and to loudly sing a song or make animal noises as we zipped off on another line. We also coordinated screaming out to the another group several lines behind us.

Sprinkled amidst the zip lines are two suspension bridges that require running or walking across. The first bridge sort of undulated up and down and the second sways back and forth. At the first bridge, Dane, determined to race as fast as possible to the next platform, departed before Julia. Julia quickly foiled his plan by encouraging Laura to join her in jumping up and down when he reached the halfway mark. The undulating bridge made it next to impossible for him to race off to the safety of the platform.

The first bridge to conquer.

Dane zips off to the next platform.

On the second bridge, Julia and Dane were behind me on the bridge swinging back and forth,   determined to make sure we all had a highly swaying and wild ride. And did we ever! I was thankful we were all clipped to safety lines and really had nothing to worry about. I also have to confess that the bridges were my least favorite part of the overall experience; however, they challenged each of us to step out of our comfort zones and experience something new and confidence building.

Dane exits the landing platform for our break.

The views on the zip lines and its platforms were spectacular and you truly feel as if you are one with nature. You can see for miles up in the tree tops and out to the distant horizon as you take in the natural beauty and splendor of the Florida landscape. At one point, we encountered an owl that flew in and sat on a tree limb right underneath the zip line. A group member riding the line actually lifted his feet to clear the bird by what appeared as a mere four feet. The bird spread its wings and majestically took off for its nest with two babies in the tree top about 20’ away from our landing platform. It was an amazing sight…especially for a bird-lover such as myself.

"Whoo hoo!"

By  now the sun had gloriously set and the daylight was fading fast. The zip experience is a bit different in the dusk as the trees and their shadows take on muted colors and differing shapes. At this point, we were more focused on the sensation of zipping as opposed to the views. As we reached the last platform, complete darkness arrived as we raced on our last line, a dual line,  down to the ground with two guides wearing red helmet lights and carrying flashlights to safely guide our way.

We were now all confident in our abilities, unaware of, or ignoring, the heights  and totally dreading the end of such an amazing and fun experience. It truly was an experience of a lifetime and a memory that will last with me forever.

I can’t honestly say that I have taken the time to actually write out a formal Bucket List, but I do know zip lining has been on my mental list for some time. I’d definitely encourage everyone to add it to your Bucket List and to visit Orlando Zip Canopy Tours or a local zip line tour in your area. I’d also recommend that you check out their Web site prior to making reservations as they seem to regularly offer various specials and discounts. I’d also like to advise you to learn the words to “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” as you just might want to sing those during your zip adventure too!

Our happy group on the last platform.
(L-R) Don, Mary, Julia, and Dane.

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A Chocolate Birthday Party? Oh Yes!

Don proudly displays his chocolate creations.

Chocolate. That simple word evokes pleasant thoughts, desires, and cravings for most people. But there are individuals who are truly addicted to chocolate and my boyfriend Don Welch is definitely one of those people.

Mmmm...chocolate!

Don’t get me wrong, Don is definitely a man’s man, but I truly believe I have seen him actually go weak in the knees for chocolate. He can consume an entire bag of chocolate without blinking an eye. So for every special occasion (and some not so special), I’ve gifted him with chocolates. Walking earlier this year with Don to the Starbucks in Dr. Phillip’s Marketplace, I discovered Farris and Foster Chocolates. On that particular day, we headed out to get Don his coffee fix – but that’s another addiction story altogether.

Shelbi funneling chocolate into a mold.

I remarked, “Don, look…a chocolate store!”  And Don commented that he had on a previous occasion witnessed a group of women carrying presents entering that store. I walked over and peered in through the front window and saw a child’s birthday party in progress along with signage advertising Chocolate Parties. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I already knew a Chocolate Party at Farris and Foster Chocolates would be in my future.

A Chocolate Party allows you and your friends to become chocolatiers. You get the opportunity to play with dark, milk, and white chocolate making your own creations including molded chocolates, truffles, chocolate cups, and chocolate-dipped items. Farris and Foster Chocolates offer different types of parties including Family Night, Girls’ Night Out, Date Night, Kids’ Birthday Parties, and even Corporate Team Building.

With Don’s birthday fast approaching, I broached the idea of having a chocolate party with his daughter Jocelyn Limerick who at the time was visiting sunny Florida from her winter-seized home in Mountain Home, Idaho.

I was searching for something new and different to do for his birthday…something that we could all enjoy and that would make him feel special. And I couldn’t imagine a better way to abate a chocolate addiction than to experience a Chocolate Party at Farris and Foster Chocolates. So Jocelyn and I visited the store to get the details and explore if it was something that we thought Don might be interested in.

Don thanks Jocelyn for his birthday surprise.

The store clerk was friendly and gave us a flyer outlining the costs and provided us with a sample of the chocolate. What a great advertising ploy…one bite of the yummy chocolate and we both knew we wanted to schedule a party. However, we still needed to convince Don’s 18-year-old son Dane that it was a good idea. He was already heavily campaigning to either go bowling or paint-balling for his dad’s birthday.

I was pleasantly surprised when Dane got on board with the chocolate party idea without much convincing. Not surprisingly, Don’s children inherited the same chocolate addiction and Dane is no exception.

Don’s birthday arrived and we cooked a special meal at home and headed out to Farris and Foster Chocolates. We didn’t tell Don in advance where we were going and he was genuinely surprised when we pulled into the Dr. Phillip’s Marketplace and headed for the chocolate store.

Jon Foster Lanenga and his wife Teri are big stars of the Chocolate Party. Foster presents the official Dog and Pony Show demonstrating how to make the different types of chocolates, how the conveyor belt works, and how to become expert “drizzlers.” “You just fling it and don’t worry about making a mess.” Teri serves as a sort of Vanna White assisting during his introduction by holding up different items as well as encouraging and helping everyone throughout the party.

Jocelyn is all smiles making chocolate.

We all donned aprons, hats, and gloves, and dove right in. Our first chore had us creating fun names to write on both sides of our hats. Minutes later, we sported names, many with pirate overtones, that included: “Donny Two Swords” and “Bill Clinton” for Don; “Lieutenant Dan”  and “Dane-o-matic” for Dane; “I Am The Shelbinator” for Shelbi Sellers (Dane’s girlfriend at the time), ” Captain Jocelyn” and “Arg…Matey” for Jocelyn; and “Mary Sugar Pistols” and “I’m With the Birthday Boy!!” for myself.

To make our chocolate creations even more appetizing, Farris and Foster Chocolates offer four towers packed with a wide variety of goodies to fill, mix in with, or decorate the chocolate. The offerings are extremely numerous and include: macadamias, pistachios, almonds, gummy worms, cherries, Rice Krispy squares, toffee, marshmallows, Twinkies, Oreos, Nutter Butters, pretzels, graham crackers, coconut, raspberries, blueberries, various sprinkles, cookie crumbs, assorted dried fruits, and caramels. There are also trays of truffle filling (heavy cream and chocolate mixed with other flavorings) including cinnamon, Tabasco (yes, Tabasco!), passion fruit, pumpkin, raspberry, and Amaretto. The towers are loaded to the brim and you are limited only by your imagination.

Dane intricately decorating his chocolates.

We all had a surprising amount of fun. Dane jumped right into creating chocolates and shocked us by quickly making up an entire tray of chocolate peanut butter cups. He then spent quite a bit of time intricately decorating each chocolate cup with different toppings and drizzles. Shelbi and Jocelyn selected cat molds (from the more than 1500 molds available) and mixed the white and milk chocolate together to create “chocolate calicos.” Don and I both made a wide variety of chocolates including our own personal versions of Almond Joys, Heath Bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Turtles. All ours lacked were the printed wrappers.

"Look...we made chocolate cats!"

Fun jazz music filled the air and there were plenty of samples to eat throughout the evening. For Date Night, they dim the over head lights and turn on twinkle lights to add to the romance. You’re invited to bring in your own drinks and food and the party at the table next to ours sipped wine and even danced with each other throughout the evening.

Don and I proudly display our creations.

At the end of the night, Foster weighs your chocolate and charges by the pound with a discount provided for each pound past the first one. Looking around the room, everyone was happy and smiling and appeared thrilled at walking out with handmade chocolate creations.

All told, we spent approximately an hour-and-a-half at the store, but the eating of our chocolates went on for days. Everyone admitted they had a fun time and we all bragged about our chocolate-making skills.

Foster, The Master Chocolatier.

Farris and Foster Chocolates has two locations in Orlando. The larger, original store on New Broad Street in Baldwin Park, and the store we visited in the Dr. Phillip’s Marketplace off of Sand Lake Road. If you are looking for something new, different, fun, and yummy, make reservations for a Chocolate Party. If you’re not that adventurous, you can also stop by their stores and purchase pre-made chocolates. You won’t have as much fun, but your chocolate will certainly be just as delicious.

(L-R) Don, myself, Jocelyn, Shelbi, and Dane are all now proud chocolatiers.

The two best things about our Farris and Foster Chocolate Party included: 1) The smile on Don’s face as we fed his chocolate addiction and made him feel special on his birthday; and 2) Foster informed us at the beginning of the party that our chocolate creations had absolutely no calories.

Ozzie – Whose Cat is He Really?

Ozzie is a short-haired tiger cat with a personality to fit a Rock Star. He’s now only a few months away from his first birthday and, quite frankly, has quite a few of us wrapped around his little toes with their extremely sharp nails.

My boyfriend Don Welch’s son Dane and his then girlfriend Shelbi Sellers acquired Ozzie from the SPCA of Central Florida. Upon his arrival, Ozzie was a precocious kitten bravely exploring his new surroundings and getting to know his new “family.”

From Day One, Dane and Shelbi rough-housed with Ozzie to the point that sometimes I cautioned them about being too rough with such a small kitty. However, Ozzie never complained and seemingly enjoyed the wrestling and relentless chasing, and he always came back for more.

Ozzie sleeps with Dane at night and Don and I developed the habit of letting let him out of Dane’s bedroom to visit with us in the mornings. He is quite attached to Don and loves to lick his morning beard and offer occasional love bites. I think Ozzie likes the feel of Don’s whiskers against his rough tongue. At night, he also likes to snuggle with Don in their favorite chair as he watches TV. He even allows Don to trim his nails without too much struggling which has become a blessing in saving his leather furniture from scratches.

In the mornings, Ozzie also makes time to snuggle with me as I drink my hot tea. It’s our special time prior to his going out  on to the back porch to explore the outside world and stalk squirrels through the pool screening. Out of everyone, I am the chief cat player and spend countless amounts of time on the floor tempting Ozzie with his many cat toys. I also pose my hand like a cat claw in the air in front of his face and taunt him to choose just the right moment for an aggressively friendly attack.

Shelbi had a habit of greeting Ozzie by capturing him and flipping him upside down. I think he actually likes that view of the world as he generally tolerated her affectionate back flips.

As he grew and matured into a teenaged cat, Ozzie demonstrated a desire to expand his world outside of the house by escaping at every opportunity. He’d sit by the door and race out through our legs and climb up the nearest tree. Invariably, he’d select the most inconvenient times to escape as it usually occurred when we are all rushed to get somewhere. Many times, he delayed departures while we coaxed him down from trees or tracked him down to lure him back into the house.

One particular night, Ozzie ventured out and we all worried when no one could find him. The next morning, he popped out from underneath Dane’s car in the driveway. Another night, he escaped without anyone’s knowledge and could not be found. The next morning, I heard mysterious meowing and he sauntered in the opened front door like it was normal being out all night.

On probably the coldest night of the year, he escaped through a hole he’d punched in the pool screening. When Don and I arrived home, Dane frustratingly informed us that Ozzie was out and that he had given up on his search for him.

Don and I bundled up and braved the cold as we valiantly went out to search for the little escape artist. We both worried about him spending the night out in the freezing temperatures. Fortunately, we located Ozzie casually walking along the top of the fence in the back yard as if he didn’t have a care in the world. We’ve since progressed to allowing Ozzie to venture out of the house into the outside world on his own which makes for easier departures.

Look closely...there's Ossie under the tree.

During the holidays, we put up the Christmas tree and Ozzie immediately thought it was his personal, indoor play tree. He climbed up it every chance he got and repeatedly knocked it over and into the wall. Don purchased a new string of LED lights for the tree and Ozzie immediately chewed through the strand leaving the bottom half of the tree dark for the remainder of the holidays.

We left the tree up and undecorated with the hopes that its novelty would soon wear off. After more than a week, I eventually braved what I thought would be an impending disaster and decorated the Christmas tree. Ozzie immediately took up residence underneath it and became fascinated and amused not so much now with climbing the tree, but playing with the ornaments and batting them off every chance he got. Throughout the holidays, I constantly picked up the scattered ornaments and redecorated the tree.

Ozzie’s rare gift is his innate ability to make all of us feel extremely special. The minute we walk through the door we all call out “Kitty! Kitty!” or “Ozzie!” to gain his attention and to let him know we are home. We each talk about him as “my cat” and really enjoy our individual interactions with him. He is truly loved by all and we playfully argue over who he actually belongs to.

On paper, Ozzie officially belongs to Dane and I believe that he truly thinks he is Dane’s cat. But I know in my heart that he also believes he is Don’s cat, and Shelbi’s cat, and my cat too!

Magical Moments in Time

Jocelyn & Travis Limerick head off to their new life together.

We’ve all experienced them…moments in time that are truly magical that we will remember for the rest of our lives. I recently shared one such moment with my boyfriend Don Welch and it’s one that I will never forget.

BeckenRidge Vineyard in Dallas, Ore.

The air was crisp and cool and lacking of the typical Florida humidity that I am used to at home. The sun had just set and the sky filled with a soft light lacking the brilliance of the shining sun.

The day had been hectic and filled with lots of activity and a range of emotions. Don dressed in his best suit adorned with a boutonnière  along with a very tasteful and expensive yellow- and blue-striped tie. He combed his amazingly thick and enviable hair to perfection and his smell was familiar, sexy, and inviting.

All members of his warm and loving family gathered around as earlier he had emotionally walked his stunningly beautiful daughter Jocelyn down the aisle to the man of her dreams – Travis Limerick.

Following the wedding ceremony and picture-taking, we sat down to a beautiful reception and shared a wonderful meal, pleasant conversation, and much laughter. At one point, I remember sipping my wine and glancing over at Don as he surveyed the room unaware that I was watching him do so. There was a look on his face of contentment at reuniting with his girls and family and yet, I knew it was somehow already overshadowed knowing his departure home to Florida was only a day away. Even so, the love Don has for his children and family shone through.

The reception room filled with enticing music, non-stop conversation, sporadic laughter, and happy people. After dinner, I departed Don’s side to help distribute the wedding cake. Upon my return to our table, I noted Don was standing on the edges of the dance floor amiably chatting with friends and family members.

The DJ then began asking for all married couples to join the bride and groom for a special dance during which he would determine the couple with the longest marriage. The beginnings of one of my favorite songs – When I Fall in Love – suddenly filled the air as the dance floor began to fill. I grabbed Don’s hand and steered him out the open French doors and on to the patio.

The majesty and beauty of Oregon was visible in the distant mountains; in the undulating vines filled with ripening grapes; and in the brilliant green scenery composed of “Christmas” and local trees surrounding the BeckenRidge Vineyard. The patio was softly lit and there were flickering candles on each of the tables. There were very few people sitting at the outside tables and only one or two individuals wandering in and out; but basically, I felt we were all alone. I think my actions at steering him outside at first confused Don, but he went with the moment and soon understood my desire to privately dance with him.

I remember the warmth of his hand in mine and the feel of his other hand as it naturally came to rest on the small of my back. He pulled me close and surprisingly and confidently led me as we silently danced and soaked in not only the atmosphere, but each other as well. All too quickly the song ended. I hugged him tight and gave Don a kiss as I told him “I love you” and he responded, “I love you too.”

Don and I at his daughter Jocelyn's wedding.

For me, it was akin to the aligning of the stars, the moon, and the sun. We were in a beautiful setting, the song was one of my romantic favorites, and I was dancing with a man I truly love.

Yes, it was a magical night for the newlyweds Jocelyn and Travis. But I believe it was magical for Don and me as well, and it’s a moment in time that will live with me forever.

Open Your Eyes to the Heroes You Know

Daniel, one of my personal heroes, with Casey.

There are definitely heroes that walk among us…and my best friend Suki Janisch, her husband Kurt, and their 17-year-old son Daniel are among them. I’ve actually known this for quite a while, but it was front and center and in my face this past Saturday morning when I attended a Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) Graduation Ceremony held at Sea World in Orlando.

CCI provides highly trained assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities, free of charge. They believe the “most advanced technology capable of transforming the lives of people with disabilities has a cold nose and a warm heart!” According to their literature, “Volunteer puppy raisers provide specially bred puppies a safe home, take them to obedience classes, serve up a healthy diet, provide socialization opportunities, and give lots of love.”

The Janischs and Nicholas at SEGD Headquarters.

The Janischs volunteer with Southeastern Guide Dogs (SEGD) whose mission is “to create and nurture a partnership between a visually impaired individual and a guide dog, facilitating life’s journey with mobility, independence and dignity.” Like CCI, SEGD relies heavily on Puppy Raisers to make their programs work. SEGD has three programs that pair professionally trained guide dogs with individuals including Paws for Independence for visually impaired individuals; Paws for Patriots for visually impaired veterans or those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; as well as providing  facility therapy dogs to various U.S.  military hospitals; and Gifted Canines for law-enforcement agencies, hospitals, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, schools and individuals with special needs providing dogs that participate in narcotic or arson detection, search and rescue, therapy and other specialized careers.

Casey was quite the adorable puppy and now, all-grown,  awaits teaming with her recipient.

In 2001, Suki, Kurt, and then six-year-old Daniel volunteered to become SEGD Puppy Raisers and received their first puppy, Port, a beautiful yellow Goldador – a cross between a Black Lab and a Golden Retriever. Goldador’s are specially bred to possess the best of both breeds – intelligence and strong hips – making for healthier dogs that will hopefully live a long life and provide valuable service for a number of years.

The Janischs, along with all of their friends, myself included, bonded and heaped loads of love upon Port. The family followed strict guidelines with Port, taught her basic commands, and attended twice-monthly SEGD meetings. As a commercial pilot, Kurt is away from home quite a bit and as a stay-at-home mom, Suki naturally shouldered the majority of the puppy raising work. Both CCI and SEGD puppies wear special coats signifying they are service dogs and learn valuable socialization skills by accompanying  their families wherever they go including the grocery store, church, the mall, restaurants, ball games, doctor appointments, and so forth. With SEGD, puppy raising can last for a period of up to 20 months at which point comes the fateful day when they turn over the dogs for more intense training and eventual teaming with their recipients.

One of the SEGD Training Classes including Kurt and Nicholas (far right).

At the time, I clearly recall Suki communicating that Port’s “turn over date” was fast approaching and once the actual day arrived, we were all quite morose and saddened; no one more so than Suki, Kurt, and Daniel, as they had truly just handed over a beloved family member. SEGD places dogs in the Gifted Canines program only if they do not meet the specific criteria for becoming guide dogs. Port, who didn’t like loud noises, matriculated into the Gifted Canine Program and currently works in the Miami International Airport sniffing out incoming drugs.

Suki and Kurt feel their only child Daniel has everything he wants or needs and believed the Puppy Raising Program would teach the importance of giving back to others. At six, Daniel naturally felt the emotions of parting with Port quite intensely. So before accepting a new puppy, Suki and Kurt consulted with Daniel to make sure he was on board with the plan.

Monte harnessed and ready for training.

Following Daniel’s approval, as is typical of many Puppy Raisers, the Janischs then immediately volunteered to accept their next dog and this tradition has held throughout the years. In addition to Port, they have raised Gino, Vi, Nicholas, Monte, and Casey. Each of these puppies was equally adorable and special and totally loved. I’ve felt this family’s pain as they’ve bravely counted down the days when they’d turn over each cherished dog for advanced training and matching with a needy recipient.

Suki relates she is most proud of what they have passed on to Daniel. “He has learned the valuable lesson that you should sacrifice what you want in your heart for the good of less fortunate people.”  Once he received his driver’s license, Daniel took it upon himself to take full responsibility of Casey, their newest puppy, and he personally took charge of her training and attended the meetings with her.

For a variety of reasons, SEGD occasionally releases dogs from its program. Of course, Puppy Raisers are at the top of the list to receive the released dogs back into their families. This occurred twice for the Janischs, as they retained both Vi and Monte. Vi, let go due to a hip injury, and Monte, released because he, along with his litter mates, could never get used to wearing the harness.

I was emotional walking into the building for CCI’s graduation and grabbed my boyfriend Don’s hand a bit tighter as we found seats close to the front. I even let him in on how I was feeling as I was already teary eyed and the program had not even started.

CCI Puppy Raisers on stage during the emotional graduation ceremony.

As part of the CCI’s ceremony, the individual puppies and their “Puppy Raising Families” paraded across the stage with many dogs sporting mortar boards signifying them as graduates. There was not a dry eye in the audience as a brave, six-year-old little girl wiped away tears as she stood on stage holding her mother’s hand and lovingly petting the puppy they had so proudly raised. Later in the program, a video provided attendees with a glimpse into the lives of the families and their “matriculating puppies” at home. Now I ask you…who doesn’t fall in love with a puppy with big eyes and overgrown paws? Each puppy was cuter than the next; if that is even possible.

CCI’s ceremony progressed to an introduction of the recipients and their families and another video presentation shared their introduction to the puppies and provided a glimpse of their two-week, intensive training program. Both shows were heart wrenching and resulted in an openly emotional and teary eyed audience. I, of course, was quite the mess.

CCI recipients from throughout the U.S. looking forward to the "Passing of the Leash."

The final part of CCI’s ceremony included a “Passing of the Leash” where the Puppy Raisers formally hand the leashed dogs over to their new owners for the final time. The process had come full circle and the Puppy Raisers met the recipient and their families and saw first-hand the rewards of their love, hard work, and sacrifice. As the Puppy Raisers departed the stage, many of the dogs looked longingly back at their families as they eventually turned with wagging tails to their new owners. Don remarked at the touching scene repeated with most of the dogs. Suki believes in that moment “the dogs truly realize people on both sides of the leash want them, but know where they are needed the most.”

The Janischs were highly rewarded when they turned over their beloved dog Nicholas to a soldier visually impaired during the Gulf War. In my opinion and at that moment in time, there were four heroes present…the brave American soldier taking hold of Nicholas’ leash and Suki, Kurt, and Daniel Janisch, brave Puppy Raisers for SEGD.

Heroes, they are out there among us and I am fortunate that I only have to look at my best friend Suki and her family to find some.

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