Fidelco News Feature Story Writing

This feature story written for the Fidelco News told the story of Bill DeMaio and his guide dog Izaac. In addition to writing the piece Gregor & Co. interviewed Bill and others.  

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A Match Made In Heaven

by Chris Gregor

“What the hell!” yelled the angry jogger as she collided with Bill DeMaio. He was walking near his home in Newington, CT distracted about coming to terms with his deteriorating eyesight. “I had been using a cane on and off and investigating Fidelco, but a cane or a guide dog felt like a big billboard announcing ‘I’m blind and dependent!’ I struggled to face the reality. That day as I walked and prayed for a sign about whether to get a guide dog  - God gave me an answer loud and clear when that lady jogger whacked me with her shoulder. I looked up to the sky and said ‘OK I get it, time to make the move.’”

It was Bill’s “Ah-ha” moment.

Bill, 53, has Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative genetic disease, and his big change in life was at age 30 when he gave up his driving license  – a huge decision. While Bill has functional vision he has lived most of his life with the gradual loss. “I tried to ‘fake it’ to fit in and not be discriminated against, but as the eyesight got worse I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says

With the jogger incident as the impetus – Izaac, a calm, focused male Fidelco guide dog, came into Bill’s life October 24th, 2011, (also Bill and his wife Susan’s 30th wedding anniversary). Interestingly, one of the DeMaio’s two daughters, Laura (Danielle is the other), is the Fidelco Apprentice Trainer who trained Izaac. “Izaac was always very serious and professional about working. When he got into the harness he was all business, out of the harness he was about having fun. He was a quick learner too. Early on I saw Izaac’s personality would match Dad’s, who had the same work ethic while being very engaged in having fun when off the clock,” says Laura. 

A Family Affair

“When I was young Dad encouraged me to set goals, follow dreams and choose lifework that made me happy. I pursued my passion by working with animals through various volunteer positions and ultimately my job with Fidelco. My other passion was helping the blind, fostered by a lifetime of helping my Dad and others he knew with blindness. When the Fidelco Selection Committee approved Dad’s application to get Izaac it seemed like a culmination those dreams I had worked to achieve, I realized how fortunate I was to combine my two great passions in my work,” Laura added.

Changing What It Means To Be Blind

Izaac embodied Bill’s second big life change. “Getting Izaac opened up the world of people that I had gradually distanced myself from. Izaac is a social magnet, people flock to him and me by association – freeing me from that old isolation due to my blindness. Now I’m outgoing enough to even plan an upcoming speaking engagement to a group of fifth graders in Massachusetts, it’s part of my quest to be a goodwill ambassador for guide dogs and Fidelco, I even have a mantra ‘Changing what it means to be blind’.”

“I was always very physically active, an avid wind surfer, I loved sports, if it had a ball, I played it,” Bill recalls. And Izaac helps Bill reconnect with that physically active lifestyle he loves. “We take long walks everyday, my friends say they have never seen me so confident in my walking – the liberation and freedom that Izaac has given me is unexplainable. Izaac’s puppy raisers tell me he loves to swim, which is perfect because I’m an enthusiastic swimmer and kayaker – this summer on the lake maybe he’ll be right there with me -  just one of the many ways that Izaac and I are a perfect match. Gretchen Fisher-Orr, the Fidelco Instructor/Trainer who trained me says it will be hard to fill Izaac’s place when he retires because we’re so in tune with each other…but that’s ten years from now.”

A New Confidence

Bill is the Director of the New Britain Department of Parks and Recreation, a demanding and wide-ranging job. He manages 70 full-time and 400 part-time employees in seven divisions, including Veterans Affairs, Persons With Disabilities, and Youth and Family Services. Bill notes the tremendous effort his colleagues make in the workplace avoiding temptations to pet or give attention to Isaac.

Just one week after completing his three-week In-community Placement, there was a big challenge for the new team – they traveled together for a two-day work-related conference away from home. It turned into a bonding opportunity. “Having a guide dog was still new, but Izaac was sensational. He mastered the layout of the hotel and route to my room instantly, it was absolutely mind-boggling.” In a classic case of “trusting the dog,” that beginning instilled a new confidence in how Bill gets around.  People are noticing: “Recently my neighbor called to tell me how she saw this well dressed blind man confidently striding across four lanes of traffic in downtown New Britain with his dog, ‘When I realized it was you! I couldn’t believe it!’ she said. That felt good to hear. I’m kind of tearing up just talking about it.”

Understandably, Bill feels a close bond with Fidelco too. So, on a Thursday night in January Bill co-hosted a fundraiser for Fidelco at a local restaurant in Newington to show appreciation.  “I can’t say enough about Fidelco and I’ll help them anyway I can. Friends and co-workers attended a fun evening and the proprietors donated 10% of the proceeds to Fidelco. We had a raffle and the guests made donations. It was a tremendous success and Izaac of course was the life of the party.”

Bill DeMaio has made big strides since that heaven-sent collision on the sidewalk in Newington and he keeps moving forward envisioning an ever- brighter future with Izaac guiding the way.

Editors note: Izaac was raised by volunteer Puppy Raisers Art Williams and Linda Manning.

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