Donations matches up to $500,000 for Palmetto-trained guide dogs facility

PALMETTO — Just as their trained dogs provide support for their visually impaired handlers, Southeastern Guide Dogs is looking for support from the community to help build a new assessment kennel for its Palmetto campus at 4210 77th St. E.

Jennifer Bement, media relations manager for the nonprofit organization, said the facility now holds up to 30 dogs at the only accredited guide dog school in the Southeast. They want to make sure as the program grows, the facility can meet the need for guide dogs, which has outgrown the assessment center’s ability to train them.

“This has been on the property for 26 years and we have vastly outgrown it in that time,” said Bement. “We are desperately in need of a new kennel.” The assessment kennel now is smaller than 2,000 square feet. It is the first place dogs come when they return from the home of their puppy raiser, whose job is to teach them to be confident dogs.

At the assessment center, dogs are assessed for their strengths and workers discern if any bad habits need to be broken.

The new assessment center will include a canine enrichment area for grooming and socialization, a behavior assessment area, and dedicated kennel space for dogs with medical needs.

Within six weeks, the organization has nearly raised the amount needed to build the new facility, which will cost $1 million. But $35,000 is still needed.

“We have an amazing group of people who care about our mission,” said Bement.

One of the many who care is philanthropist Keith Hirst from Sarasota. The lifelong dog lover learned of the need for a new building through the organization’s Sarasota location and set up a challenge grant to match any donation up to $500,000.

“When I learned about Southeastern Guide Dogs and its accomplishments, I knew I wanted to help,” said Hirst. “As the school and the waiting list continue to grow, the time has come to build a new Canine Assessment Center. And I’m thrilled to help make it possible.”

Southeastern Guide Dogs will have an invitation-only groundbreaking ceremony July 11 at its Palmetto campus.

To donate to the project, go to guidedogs.org/hirstchallenge. To volunteer with the organization, log on to guidedogs.org

Janey Tate, city of Bradenton and Palmetto reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. You can follow her on Twitter at Janey_Tate.