“I Wouldn’t Change a Thing”

Faced with nearcom­plete vision loss at 14 years of age, Molly Burke turned a dev­as­tat­ing event into an op­por­tu­nity to help oth­ers, build­ing a rich life as a mo­ti­va­tional speaker, YouTube per­son­al­ity, and com­mer­cial star, thanks to an in­domitable spirit—an

Modern Dog - - CONTENTS - BY TRACEY TONG

Molly Burke, a blind young woman who faced near-com­plete vision loss at 14, talks courage, in­spi­ra­tion, goals, and her guide dog—and why she wouldn’t change a thing.

When Molly Burke heads out with Gal­lop, a fiveyear-old black Lab and Ber­nese Moun­tain Dog mix, many peo­ple think that the pretty, petite brunette is train­ing a ser­vice or med­i­cal alert dog.

After chat­ting with the 24-year-old for a few min­utes, peo­ple are usu­ally sur­prised to learn that Gal­lop is her ser­vice dog, and that Molly is blind.

“I don’t look like what most peo­ple think blind peo­ple look like,” says Molly, who makes eye con­tact when she speaks, and has per­fect pos­ture and a con­fi­dent stride.

She doesn’t act like it, ei­ther. She has a favourite colour (pur­ple) and loves makeup, fash­ion, and tat­toos. She keeps phys­i­cally fit with down­hill ski­ing, sus­pen­sion yoga, and pi­lates. She’s the girl next door, but she’s also over­come many hard­ships in her young life, and has a way of shar­ing her ex­pe­ri­ences that makes oth­ers feel not so alone, no mat­ter what they are fac­ing.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Molly is a pas­sion­ate guide dog ad­vo­cate. More sur­pris­ing per­haps is that, though just 24, she is a riv­et­ing speaker on sub­jects such as over­com­ing ad­ver­sity, bul­ly­ing, and em­brac­ing di­ver­sity, a tal­ent she has lever­aged to build a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a sought-after mo­ti­va­tional speaker for au­di­ences as large as 20,000 peo­ple, rang­ing from mid­dle-school stu­dents to CEOs at For­tune 500 com­pa­nies.

You may even rec­og­nize Molly as the star of a cur­rently air­ing Dove body wash tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial. Cer­tainly, she’s well known to her nearly 200,000 YouTube chan­nel sub­scribers who ea­gerly tune in twice a week to watch her ex­pound on top­ics rang­ing from bring­ing a guide dog on an air­plane, to how blind peo­ple pick up their guide dogs’ poop, to how she does her makeup—all with her typ­i­cal hu­mour and can­dour.

“I’m not per­fect, but I’m open and hon­est and I’m a work in progress,” she says. “A lot of speak­ers in the in­dus­try talk about their suc­cesses but not their fail­ures. I think fail­ures are what teach us the most. I share the good, the bad, and the ugly.

“I think when you first hear my story—I went blind at 14, lost my friends, and was bul­lied and be­came sui­ci­dal— it all sounds very dra­matic,” she says. “But my story is about over­com­ing chal­lenge. We all have to over­come chal­lenges in life and some of us have to con­tin­u­ously over­come chal­lenge.”

Di­ag­nosed with Re­tini­tis Pig­men­tosa, a rare de­gen­er­a­tive reti­nal dis­ease at the age of four, Molly grew up in Oakville, On­tario where she lived with her older brother Brady and their par­ents. They re­main close (her mother Ni­amh is Molly’s full-time ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant and her fa­ther Peter han­dles all the ad­min­is­tra­tion for her com­pany, Molly Burke Inc.). In kinder­garten, she be­gan learn­ing braille, yet did her best to carry on as nor­mal. But as her vision went away, so did her friends.

Molly, who man­aged to get around fairly well, was ac­cused of fak­ing vision prob­lems for at­ten­tion. She was tor­mented by bul­lies; a school guid­ance coun­sel­lor even told her she’d brought the bul­ly­ing onto her­self. On top of her vision loss, she strug­gled with de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, and sui­ci­dal thoughts.

By 14, Molly had lost her vision to what she has now— some light and shadow.

She’d trans­ferred to a school for the blind for Grade 9, but the bul­ly­ing con­tin­ued. By this time, she’d learned to stand up for her­self, and switched back to a sighted school for Grade 11.

“I went to be able to gain a lot of skills that I needed in life,” she says. “But it wasn’t re­al­ity. In re­al­ity, not ev­ery other per­son is blind, not ev­ery­thing is in en­larged print

and not ev­ery per­son is spe­cially trained to work with you. I knew that if I was go­ing to be suc­cess­ful in so­ci­ety, I had to go into the real world.”

It was dur­ing these dif­fi­cult years that she got her first guide dog, a Lab-Ber­nese Moun­tain Dog cross, Gypsy, from the Mira Foun­da­tion just out­side of Mon­treal, Que­bec.

Many peo­ple mis­tak­enly be­lieve that those who are vis­ually im­paired au­to­mat­i­cally get a guide dog. It’s not the case. Be­fore re­ceiv­ing a dog, Molly first had to live at the school to un­dergo rig­or­ous test­ing and train­ing to prove that she could care for both her­self and a guide dog.

“My first dog opened up a door to this new life,” she says. “To me, it’s not just a dog, but a life­line and a tool. I have to trust this dog with my life. We’re cross­ing four lanes of rush­hour traf­fic to­gether,” she says.

Un­for­tu­nately, the thing that all guide dog users need to ac­cept is that their dog is even­tu­ally go­ing to die, and that they will have to get another one, Molly says.

When Gypsy died un­ex­pect­edly dur­ing surgery in 2014, a dev­as­tated Molly didn’t leave her house for two weeks.

“It was re­ally dif­fi­cult,” says Molly. “Gypsy was the one con­stant in my life. She was there for my first boyfriend, my first heart­break. She was there when I grad­u­ated high school. She was my prom date. She moved out with me when I got my first apart­ment. Los­ing her was like clos­ing a big chap­ter in my life. It was so painful.” With­out a guide, Molly even­tu­ally picked up her cane, which she used un­til she got Gal­lop from the Mira Foun­da­tion two and a half months later. That time with­out a guide dog re­in­forced what Molly al­ready knew – that she is very much a guide dog user. While say­ing good­bye to any animal is hard, there is no com­par­i­son be­tween los­ing a pet and a guide dog, says Molly. “It’s so hard for me when peo­ple say they un­der­stand be­cause they lost a fam­ily pet,” says Molly. (The Burkes’ 15-year-old Pol­ish Low­land Sheep­dog, Rory, passed away re­cently, which Molly says is sad, but main­tains is not the same.) “[A guide dog] is a 24/7 com­pan­ion and a life­line. Gypsy and Gal­lop are a part of me. They as­sist me in ba­sic ev­ery­day tasks. I don’t view them as sep­a­rate. To me, they’re like a wheel­chair to some­one who can’t walk or a limb to some­one who is an am­putee.” Gal­lop, who Molly calls “the per­fect dog for me,” has trav­elled with her all over North Amer­ica and to Ire­land for her speak­ing en­gage­ments—“it was so much work get­ting him there,” she says. “There was so much pa­per­work we had

I think when you first hear my story—I went blind at 14, lost my friends, and was bul­lied and be­came sui­ci­dal—it all sounds very dra­matic,” she says. “But my story is about over­com­ing chal­lenge. We all have to over­come chal­lenges in life.

to get done in ad­vance, but he loved it!” She opts to leave Gal­lop at home when she heads to coun­tries like Kenya. “Safety is a pri­or­ity for me,” she says. “I didn’t know how he would re­act.”

The only place she’s had trou­ble with ac­cess for Gal­lop is New York City (which she fre­quents) due to the high pop­u­la­tion of fake ser­vice dogs. To the dis­may of the guide dog com­mu­nity, websites ded­i­cated to the sales of fake guide dog gear have been pop­ping up over the last sev­eral years.

“It’s a work in progress to raise aware­ness for this is­sue,” says Molly. “Peo­ple who use fake ser­vice dogs don’t un­der­stand. They think it’s an easy way to get to bring their pets ev­ery­where, but there are real im­pli­ca­tions for our com­mu­nity and it causes a lot of is­sues that peo­ple don’t re­al­ize. Dis­abil­i­ties come in all shapes and sizes and you can’t al­ways tell who needs a ser­vice dog,” she says. “Main­stream me­dia per­pet­u­ates what dis­abil­i­ties look like. We don’t look a cer­tain way or fit into a cer­tain box.”

Another mis­con­cep­tion Molly wants to dis­pel is about guide dogs be­ing en­slaved by their users.

“Our dogs love to work and they get ex­cited when they see the har­ness,” says Molly. “They get ex­er­cise, lots of stim­u­la­tion, and get to spend the en­tire day with the per­son they love the most. It gives them pur­pose.”

Some dogs aren’t meant to be work­ing dogs, says Molly. As a re­sult, not ev­ery dog trained to be a guide works in the field, and some an­i­mals are re­tired after only a cou­ple of months.

When Molly is at home, Gal­lop gets plenty of down­time and en­joys sleep­ing on the couch and play­ing at the dog park.

With the help of her guide dogs, Molly has come a long way from the de­pres­sion and sui­ci­dal thoughts that marked her ear­lier years com­ing to terms with her vision loss. These days, she’s lov­ing life and work­ing to­wards her goal—to see bul­ly­ing end, to re­duce stig­mas around men­tal health and to see equal treat­ment for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties. And this past De­cem­ber, Molly ful­filled a life­long dream of mov­ing to Los An­ge­les—with Gal­lop, of course.

There have been sci­en­tific ad­vances that could re­verse vision loss, in­clud­ing stem cell ther­apy and robotic re­place­ment, but Molly says that a cure isn’t some­thing she’s per­son­ally in­ter­ested in.

“I’ve adapted to this life,” she says. “It’s hard for peo­ple to un­der­stand, but I’ve ad­justed and I’m happy. Go­ing back would be a huge ad­just­ment and I would have to learn life all over again. I’m con­tent and proud of who I am and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Gal­lop and Molly on the stairs

Molly speaks at Wal­rus Talks.

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