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Cambridge family gives back with volunteer work with dog guides

Impacted by his own dog guide, Lisa and Matthew Colombo now aim to give back to others through their volunteer work with the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides

More than just a companion, dogs have the ability to change lives.

They can be a set of eyes, ears or help a person on their journey to independence.

Just ask mother Lisa Colombo and son Matthew of Cambridge. Matthew was diagnosed with autism at a young age and received his first guide dog just after he turned six years old. It was a moment, unbeknownst to him at the time, that would change the course of his life.

“We actually read an article about the guide dog program and that’s how it started,” Lisa said. “It mentioned that there was a new program starting for children diagnosed with autism through the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.”

After reading the article, Lisa immediately picked up the phone and called the foundation located in Oakville. With the program not yet started, Lisa put Matthew’s name on a wait list.

Fourteen years later, Matthew now has his second dog, a golden lab named Harris, and he and his mother are avid volunteers at a training centre in Breslau. All in an effort to give back to a program that has given so much to them.

"I love being able to walk the mothers," Matthew said. "Soon I'll be back to socializing with the puppies. For me, it has really helped me with stress."

Guide dogs are provided to eligible individuals that need them at zero cost to the families. The cost to breed, train and match a dog can run up to $35,000. The foundation receives zero government funding according to their website, relying on the support of Lions Clubs and individual donors to help front the cost. That’s where volunteers like Matthew and Lisa play an invaluable role in helping prepare puppies for their adult occupation.

Once trained, the impact of a guide dog has on a person's life is priceless.

“The dog is trained to calm Matthew down, he can sense when he needs a break, before he got a guide dog he didn’t sleep,” Lisa said. “We’re all born to learn how to handle that but some of us due to a diagnosis or how we handle things, having that presence with us allows us to have a life of independence.”

That’s what Matthew and Lisa want to provide other people. Whether it’s simply walking the dogs or handling them to get them comfortable with human interaction, it’s about giving back and helping others the way Matthew has been assisted by the foundation.

There’s one interaction Matthew and Lisa remember back to that reinforced the reason for all their hard work and volunteer hours.

“An amazing guide dog was placed with this man from eastern Canada,” Lisa recalls. “They came back to Ontario to come to the facility in Breslau. I asked him about his dog and he told us his name. When he left I told Matthew afterwards that it was one of the dogs we had worked with.”

That interaction showed them that a small act can have a far reaching impact, an important lesson for anyone.

“This is the greatest opportunity to give back,” Lisa said. “It’s amazing to think that man will never know what we did but we know how important it is. It’s like a gift.”

For more information and ways to get involved with the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides visit dogguides.com

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