Like most dogs, Iris is a faithful companion to her master. She cuddles, walks, plays and protects. She wags her tail for treats and head pats and relishes a snuggly spot in front of the fireplace. She dispenses unconditional love 24/7—part and parcel with pet ownership.
The impeccably groomed English Black Labrador is a service dog, too. She serves as My Rae Migliazzo’s eyes, helping the visually impaired 64-year-old Leawood resident go about her day—navigating Costco’s crowded aisles, accompanying her to speaking engagements at schools, churches and civic groups and taking meandering walks through the neighborhood.
But it’s in a house of worship that the full meaning of Iris’ role in My Rae’s life is perhaps most evident. Iris helps My Rae, a Eucharistic minister, distribute Holy Communion to parishioners at Church of the Nativity’s 9 o’clock Sunday morning Mass. She sits obediently in her harness at My Rae’s side, reverently watching people file by for the bread and wine.
If a crumb falls to the floor, Iris doesn’t budge.
|My Rae and Iris at Mass at the Church of the Nativity.|
According to My Rae, it’s a true God moment when Iris doesn’t flinch at the opportunity of a free snack.
“At the grocery store, she’s like a vacuum cleaner, sniffing for food that may have fallen to the ground around the sampling stations,” says My Rae, who has 90 percent loss of vision in one eye and 95 percent loss in the other. “But at church, it’s like she knows Holy Communion is a sacred moment.”
Nativity’s Director of Ministries Tom Garbach says My Rae and Iris are an inseparable part of the Nativity Parish community.
“Whether My Rae is attending Mass or participating, going to a spiritual retreat or helping with a large event in the Parish hall, Iris is a constant companion,” says Garbach. “Iris’ presence is indeed a wonderful reminder that God’s love for us is expressed in many different ways.”
My Rae began losing her sight 26 years ago as the result of a genetic disease that she was diagnosed with decades before, at age 16. One of the condition’s side effects is a tendency to easily hemorrhage.
“That’s what happened in my late 30s,” says My Rae, who is semi-retired from a sales career as the Lyric Opera’s volunteer coordinator. “The end result is similar to macular degeneration, except my eyesight just gradually slips away forever.”
Today My Rae discerns between light and dark, and reads with a magnifying machine, although the level at which letters require magnification makes it a slow and laborious process. She’s an active woman, and has always enjoyed walking, which is the precise reason why 8-year-old Iris eventually found her way from The Seeing Eye, Inc. in Morristown, New Jersey to Kansas City.
As My Rae was crossing 119th and Roe one day in 2004, leaving Dean & DeLuca to meet a friend at Yia Yia’s Eurobistro in Hawthorne Plaza, a distracted driver in a silent hybrid car clipped her cane and continued driving, oblivious to his actions. Though My Rae wasn’t injured, except for her hand being bent back as the cane flew up in the air and shattered, her confidence level was severely damaged. A young man changing a bicycle chain nearby saw the incident and helped a shaken My Rae cross the street.
“That was the beginning of a period of isolation for me,” says My Rae, “and my husband, Sam, became concerned.”
Sam had an epiphany one night while watching an episode of a favorite CBS program, “Blind Justice.” The series was about a New York City police detective who lost his vision following an on-the-job gunshot wound—and used a service dog.
Inspired, Sam decided to research service dogs for visually impaired individuals and discovered The Seeing Eye, a well-regarded philanthropy that is the world’s oldest guide dog school.
The couple contacted the organization, and the process of approval for a service dog began in earnest—a year of background checks, home visits and interviews.
“I had to demonstrate I could handle a leash and harness, a service dog’s equipment,” says My Rae, who was accepted in March 2006. She flew to New Jersey on April 1 to embark on an intensive 28-day class with 24 other sight-impaired individuals to train. Nearly a month later, My Rae flew back to Kansas City with Iris, a 2-year-old, 20-inch-tall, 57-pound coal black lab—the perfect match to her master’s diminutive five-feet one-inch frame.
Kathy Berwanger, a Nativity parishioner who has never officially met My Rae and Iris but has encountered the duo during Mass and spies them walking together down Nall, is inspired.
“She gives hope in ways she doesn’t even realize,” says Berwanger.
Iris’ personality is at once gentle and gregarious, curious and obedient, loyal and protective—which syncs with My Rae’s outgoing and compassionate nature.
When Iris works, she is on point and focused to keep My Rae safe; when the harness is removed, she’s like any other pet, lobbying for affection and attention. My Rae, who is careful to make those she comes into contact with aware of a service dog’s solemn responsibilities when on the job, can’t imagine a life without Iris.
“Though I no longer can see Iris’ eyes, Sam tells me if she could talk, she’d have a lot to say,” says My Rae.
No doubt, Iris, who will retire at the end of her service life as the Migliazzo’s full-time pet, would say, “I love you—now let’s go for a walk.”
For more information on The Seeing Eye, Inc. and service dogs, visit seeingeye.org.