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Guide dog opens eyes of entire Mars school district, community

| Sunday, April 14, 2013, 12:07 a.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Max Lamm, 11, poses for a portrait outside his home in Adams Township with his guide dog Seal on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. Lamm is vision impaired and needs help from other children who would like to pet Seal but cannot, so the dog does not get distracted while it is working.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Max Lamm (in blue), 11, of Adams Township walks home from the school bus with his guide dog Seal and his friend Blake Duffy (in yellow), 11, of Adams Township as Alec McEwen, 11, of Adams Township follows behind on Wednesday, April 10, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Seal, a guide dog for 11-year-old Max Lamm, lays on the floor while Lamm practices the drums in the basement of his Adams Township home on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. Lamm is vision impaired and needs help from other children who would like to pet Seal but cannot, so the dog does not get distracted while it is working.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Max Lamm, 11, of Adams Township, who is vision impaired, walks home from the school bus with his guide dog Seal on Wednesday, April 10, 2013.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Seal, a guide dog for 11-year-old Max Lamm, lays on the floor while Lamm practices the drums in the basement of his Adams Township home with fellow students of Rock School Pittsburgh on Wednesday, April 10, 2013.

When the Mars Area Centennial School yearbook is printed for the 2012-13 school year, Seal Lamm's picture will be in it right next to Max Lamm, 11, of Adams.

They aren't brothers or even related, but their bond is strong. Seal is Max's guide dog.

“The dog is really part of the school community. He's part of the class,” said Principal Todd R. Lape.

Seal, a 2 year-old St. Pierre (a cross between a Labrador and Bernese mountain dog), blends in so effectively that Lape said no one really notices the dog anymore.

“The dog can be in a lunchroom with 250 fifth-graders and the dog doesn't budge, even with food an inch from his nose,” Lape said.

Max grew up without sight, having been diagnosed with a rare eye cancer in both eyes at 9 months old. But he's a typical fifth-grader in most ways, said his father, Eric Lamm, 45.

“You probably wouldn't know when you first see Max that he is blind,” he said. Max skis, runs, plays drums and enjoys tackle football games in the backyard with his buddies.

Until last summer, Max used a cane to get around, which he didn't like.

“I was confident with the cane but I'm way more confident with the dog now,” Max said.

Lape said he made sure that Seal's introduction into the school community was smooth. He set up time during the summer for Max and Seal to get acclimated to the building. A letter went out to parents to inform them about the guide dog and provide an opportunity to express any concerns.

Aside from a few allergy issues, there have been no problems, Lape said.

“Everyone has embraced Seal being in the building,” he said.

And Max can better blend in.

“Seal is my best friend,” Max said. “He's more than that.”

Robert Baillie comes close to understanding the bond between Max and Seal. Baillie is the founder of MIRA USA, a North Carolina-based foundation dedicated to providing guide dogs to blind children. He lost his vision after complications from coronary bypass surgery in 2007 and, like Max, has a guide dog, named DJ.

“Max will tell you that it is an unbelievably life-changing experience,” Baillie said.

He was inspired to form MIRA USA after meeting Eric St. Pierre, founder of MIRA CANADA. Unlike other guide dog foundations that concentrate solely on the needs of adults, MIRA strives to address the needs of blind youths.

“It's tough being a teenager at any time, but being a blind teenager? Socially, a dog can make a huge change in a child's life,” Baillie said.

Max traveled to Montreal for a month of extensive training with Seal. His mom, Lisa, 43, accompanied Max for the training but was prohibited from interacting with him for the first two weeks so that he and Seal could develop a strong bond.

The training is tough, Baillie said, with kids working with the dogs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for 6 days a week. Commands are taught in French and the final skills test required Max and Seal to navigate across four or five lanes of busy traffic.

“MIRA puts a tremendous amount of time and effort into training the dogs,” said Eric Lamm.

Although each guide dog costs $60,000, they are provided to families for free. In Max's case, a North Carolina family, anonymous to the Lamms, donated the money to MIRA. The only stipulation: Max's dog needed to be named Seal, in honor of the family's son who was in the Navy.

The Lamms have helped to organize a “Dining in the Dark” fundraiser April 27, at Oakmont Country Club. Attendees will enjoy their dinner while blindfolded, allowing a glimpse into the challenges blind children can face.

Mars Area Centennial School is holding a Pajama Day fundraiser April 25. For a donation of any amount, students can come to school in their pajamas.

“Parents are very supportive. We're very fortunate in Mars — people really give back,” Lape said.

Mandy Fields Yokim is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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