Community Spotlight: Deana Izzo
By: Missy DeVelvis
It is quite literally impossible to spend four years at the University of Georgia without encountering a pup in a bright yellow jacket. The University of Georgia and the surrounding Athens area has the highest concentration of guide dog pups in training in the South, arguably even nationwide. While the average size of guide dog groups numbers ten to twenty, the Athens region contains eighty to one hundred dogs, with two hundred human members at any given time. These future guide dog puppies and their jingling name tags lift heads wherever they go. Once they are done ogling at the cuteness of the pup, people will usually spare a glance at the raiser walking the pup, and high chances are this walker is a woman. And behind this impressive amount of both pups and volunteer raisers for the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind here in Athens there is one woman: Deana Izzo.
I have been involved with the Guide Dog Foundation, or GDF, here in Athens for two full years now. I sat down for coffee with Izzo and asked her what her official job title was. The answer is deceivingly simple: Deana is a field representative Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Inc. and America’s Vet Dogs, and helped initiate the first Athens group in 2005. Deana then goes on to list the states that she covers, and I am truly struck with how far her range is. Izzo is responsible for building puppy groups in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, parts of Alabama, and a coast of Florida. The total number of dogs she oversees? Anywhere from 150-180.
Deana is quick to praise the Area Coordinators, or AC’s, that she oversees in making her job so much easier. “Without my AC’s none of this would be possible,” she states, claiming that it would be physically impossible for her to remember such an overwhelming amount of information on each dog without her AC’s, who run bi-monthly meetings of smaller groups of pups and keep Deana informed on the progress of the pups. Many of these AC’s are UGA students, and the vast majority of them are women.
I can attest to the excellence of our AC’s here in Athens. Yet I have also dealt with Deana many times, and I know that her workload should not be so easily dismissed. While my AC handles the smaller problems, if a health problem arises, an evaluation is needed, or it is time to see if our pups are ready to advance to New York for higher training we pass our information on to Deana and go visit her at “the kennel”. I am always amazed at how much Deana can remember about each and every dog. If she lapses for even a moment, all we need to do is remind her of one tiny tidbit about our dogs and she will instantly remember everything we have told her about our pups, their health, and their abilities. When you are around Deana, she makes you want to impress—your pup had better be ready to show off its training.
Yet puppy raisers know Deana is not the only one watching. On a college campus, raisers and their pups are under constant observation. Not all GDF members have pups: some are applicants training for their own pup and others like myself are between dogs. I find myself watching a pup and its raiser, noting its walk and sometimes subconsciously checking its training, all the while the raiser has no idea I am a member of the organization. All dog handlers, therefore, are held to an incredibly high standard. They represent the GDF in the most ostentatious way possible: by attracting attention with an adorable pup in a bright yellow vest. These handlers must be leaders, responsible, and always alert. Raising a puppy is no easy task.
Deana and I discussed the strange phenomenon that is the small number of men in the organization. We could not quite figure out why more guys don’t flock to the program: Deana joked that “puppies are a huge chick magnet!” The men that we do have, Deana and I agree, are wonderful raisers, but we wonder why they don’t bring their friends along for the experience. Whatever the reason, the fact stands that if you see a pup on campus, statistics show that it will most likely be walked by a woman. The Guide Dog Foundation, therefore, is a wonderful way that women on campus are displaying leadership, responsibility, dedication, and their generous hearts. Giving away a puppy is no easy task, I can attest, but seeing your dog matched with someone who truly needs them is an experience that will never stop filling your heart with joy.
Women and men in Athens are doing great things through this organization. The concentration of dogs in one place allows for easy networking and instant puppy-sitting services, and thus the Guide Dog community is born. This is the favorite part for Deana. Through the visibility of puppy raisers, Deana is able to watch people grow up. She cites an example of a meek, quiet girl that entered the program 3-4 years ago who has now learned to take charge and become a great AC. Over the past eight years in Athens, Deana has watched former raisers move on in life, get married, and have kids, many choosing to continue raising for the program. I myself know four former raisers in Athens who have gone on to pursue careers in guide dog programs or found their own groups on other campuses in different states. All four of these raisers are women, taking what they have learned and making it their life’s vocation. Even more of our women continue to work with animals through veterinary school.
Deana stresses that the puppy raisers in her program have no idea how much they impact people merely by walking their dogs every day. It could be their friends, a roommate who does not raise but knows every minute detail about house-breaking a pup, or a classmate who has learned “do not pet without permission!” I know my friends will leave with the strangest assortment of guide dog trivia, such as the magic of the word “leave it” or that my pup isn’t allowed to eat until I whistle three times, something incredibly funny to watch as I can’t whistle to save my life. I cannot be more grateful for what this organization, through careful monitoring by Deana Izzo and my AC, has brought to my life.
I will end with a nice coda. While we drank coffee, a gorgeous fluffy collie in harness sat patiently by Deana’s side. She explained to me that this dog had passed the training in New York and was spending its last few weeks of training with Deana before she was placed with her matched human. When I asked who the collie was, she told me that she had been raised by one of the puppy walkers at UGA, a college campus. She is matched to assist a student living in North Carolina who will also be living on a college campus. The pup started out on a college campus, is finishing her training on a college campus, and will begin her great work on yet another campus. This pup, and the work that a very diligent raiser has done, has come full circle.
Photo by Kensie Sears: Members of the Athens branch of the Guide Dog Foundation, Inc. Taken on North Campus April 2013.