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THE STATE

Desert Guide Dog Program Gains Reprieve Until June

March 11, 2004|Cynthia Daniels | Times Staff Writer

After numerous donations and the support of a private donor, Guide Dogs of the Desert International is out of the doghouse -- at least until June.

The school, which was facing closure because of declining funds, received $50,000 in donations after news reports in The Times and elsewhere last month.

In addition, a donor who wants to remain anonymous pledged to give the school enough money to continue its operations for 90 days, said Brian Van Dusen, a member of the school's board of directors and finance committee.

"Every little dollar that comes in gets us one dollar closer to turning things around and moving forward," he said.

The donations have allowed the school, in White Water near Palm Springs, to repay a $30,000 loan and continue its operations for an additional month. The donor's contribution could extend past 90 days if he approves of the school's business plan, Van Dusen said.

"He recognizes there is a need for this school and what we do," Van Dusen said. "He wants the school to survive and provide that need."

For 32 years, the school prided itself on accepting students with multiple disabilities and offering them free services ranging from a 28-day training class to funds for emergency veterinary bills after graduation.

But financial constraints forced Guide Dogs to scale back. The school trimmed its budget last year from $1.3 million to $880,000, laid off 22 staff members and canceled training classes. The resignation of its licensed guide dog trainer last month resulted in the suspension of the school's operating license.

State law requires that guide dog schools have a licensed trainer, said Kevin Flanagan, spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the State Board of Guide Dogs for the Blind.

About 200 of the school's graduates are scattered throughout the United States, most of them in Southern California.

Guide Dogs of America in Sylmar and Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael have agreed to help graduates and prospective students of the financially ailing school.

Marilyn Bilderback, 60, was scheduled to take classes at Guide Dogs of the Desert last month. Though she had looked forward to the school's small classes of five or six students, she now plans to attend Guide Dogs for the Blind, where classes can include as many as 20 people.

Bilderback, whose sight is failing gradually, said she is eager to receive a golden retriever that she thinks will help return her independence and confidence. Too eager, she said, to wait for Guide Dogs of the Desert to rebound.

"It seemed like such a pleasant place," Bilderback said. "The last thing I expected was for them to be having financial trouble."

The school had depended on individual donations and a primary funder -- the Canyon Country Club Charitable Foundation -- for money. But a disagreement about the school's next director caused the organizations to part ways in 2000.

After the terrorist attacks in September 2001, the school's donations decreased dramatically. It sustained itself for two years on cash reserves while applying for grants that never came.

In December, Guide Dogs was denied a loan. One month later, a major donor backed out.

Van Dusen says the school has started rebuilding itself in small steps. It has created a new website, has initiated a direct-mail campaign and is creating a development program.

"It's not the prettiest place in the world to be right now," Van Dusen said.

"But we have started doing little things that we need for the long term," he added. "We're going to pull through this and we're going to be OK."

To help the school, send donations to: Guide Dogs of the Desert International, P.O. Box 1692, Palm Springs, CA 92263.

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