Canine companion helps blind 5-year-old overcome obstacles and prepare for an exciting future

Blind Boy and Merlot Bond Pet Dog

Southeast Guide Dogs

Destiny Fiaschetti knew from an early age that she wanted to foster children.

“It’s always been a pragmatic thing for me, like, yeah, I’m going to be a mother of kids that I foster and adopt,” Fiaschetti, 24, told PEOPLE.

At 22, the army veteran started fostering children after his medical retirement from the army.

“At first it was a bit devastating because I had all these goals for my career in the military, and it wasn’t how I planned it. And then it became clear that I I was in the perfect circumstances to start fostering and devoting all of my time to kids who needed that extra time and that extra love,” said Fiaschetti, who lives in Seffner, Florida.

A Texas foster care provider contacted Fiaschetti shortly after the veteran became a foster parent, looking for a home for a 2-year-old autistic boy named Junie.

“He is completely blind and suffers from septo-optic dysplasia, a rare condition that led to his loss of vision and panhypopituitarism – a disorder of the pituitary gland,” says Fiaschetti.

“It causes adrenal insufficiency. His body doesn’t produce stress hormones, so he can’t tolerate stress. And he has to be stress tested throughout the day,” he added .

The veteran’s response upon hearing about Junie was, “How fast can he get here?”

Blind Boy and Merlot Bond Pet Dog

Blind Boy and Merlot Bond Pet Dog

Southeast Guide Dogs

After Fiaschetti completed his training to care for Junie and received approval from a judge to foster the toddler, the veteran began caring for the boy.

“He was severely retarded when he went into foster care. At two years old, he wasn’t crawling, he wasn’t walking and he really wasn’t talking. He had no communication skills,” said Fiaschetti about meeting Junie.

“I was told that I had to be careful because every time someone approached him, he bit them,” she adds. “He was afraid of his surroundings and had not been approached safely before that.”

Fiaschetti saw a child waiting for his chance to shine in Junie.

“Don’t underestimate our children and the power of love. People see children in foster care and may immediately have negative thoughts and are afraid to give them a chance,” says Fiaschetti.

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She adopted Junie on September 29, 2020.

Five-year-old Junie is sunny, social and eager to offer compassion.

“He really talks a lot now. He’s a little social butterfly. He loves making friends,” Junie’s mom shares of the child her son has become. “He’s super adventurous. He loves getting out and exploring his surroundings. Totally fearless. He’ll try anything he can. And he’s like a complete cuddly bug.”

Alongside Junie, who helps him explore, navigate, and meet the world head-on, is Merlot, the boy’s canine companion.

Blind Boy and Merlot Bond Pet Dog

Blind Boy and Merlot Bond Pet Dog

Southeast Guide Dogs

Merlot is a Labrador retriever provided free to Junie by Southeastern Guide Dogs through the nonprofit’s Kids Companion program.

The program is designed for “children who have vision loss between the ages of 5 and 17,” according to Katie Perez, children’s and teen programs manager at Southeastern Guide Dogs and certified guide dog instructor.

“The Kids Companion program helps bridge that gap and bridges that gap between the young child of today and the independent guide dog handler of tomorrow,” Perez said.

“Children Junie’s age learn how to feed the dogs, brush the dogs. We teach them basic obedience skills so they can work with their dog and maintain that bond so that later on they have already a step ahead when with a guide dog. They will be better prepared. The children gain enormously in confidence,” she adds.

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Merlot teamed up with Junie after Perez spotted posts on a Facebook group she and Fiaschetti follow: Sarah’s Walking Club. Much of the conversation in the group revolved around parks and walking trails to visit. Fiaschetti often shared details of the nature walks she took with Junie, who loves to admire the outdoors, on the Facebook page.

“We could find some cool parks to explore and things like that,” the veteran says of why she joined the group. “And Junie kind of got a bit of a fan base there pretty quickly.”

Once Perez learned a bit more about Junie from Fiaschetti’s messages in the group, she “reached out in a private message and said, ‘Look, I’m not trying to overstep, but I wanted to let you know that Southeastern has this free program for Junie-aged kids, which is our Kids Companion program, says Perez.

Fiaschetti discussed the idea of ​​bringing a dog into the program with Junie: “We were both very excited.”

Blind Boy and Merlot Bond Pet Dog

Blind Boy and Merlot Bond Pet Dog

Southeast Guide Dogs

“Within a few months, we had Merlot,” she adds.

Junie and Merlot became best friends without hesitation and now spend their days together.

“They both have identical energy levels. She is very excited and loves running around and playing with him. They go swimming together. He tries to get her into the tub. It’s nice to see him show her the farm, show her the animals, talk to her about things and play with her. He took responsibility for feeding her and giving her treats,” Fiaschetti says of how Merlot has added to their lives. .

She hopes others will see the joy between Junie and Merlot and remember the amazing things all children can do when given love and support.

“Junie is just as dignified as any other child, just as capable as any other child, and her disability is not something to be despised,” says Fiaschetti, adding that “blindness is not a curse, being adopted is not a curse, being in foster care is not a curse These things are part of Junie’s story and who he is, but it’s not a negative aspect of him .

Those interested in learning more about Southeastern Guide Dogs, the nonprofit’s Kids Companion program, should visit the organization’s website, Perez says.

“All of our funds come from generous donations from the public. We have different ways, both monetary and physical, that people help the organization. One of the ways people help is that we have puppy raisers all over the And after the dogs are bred and born on campus, they stay with us, it varies, but usually 12-14 weeks, then we have volunteer puppy raisers who help teach them all the basics. ‘obedience. They’re exposing them to the world. They’re living with them in their house for the next year until they’re ready to come back for their official guide dog training,” she adds.

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