It's Saturday. The midday sun is shrouded by gray clouds threatening rain. Inside "Sadie's Place" above Makawao, there seems to be nothing but sunshine.
In a garden outside the entrance marked by a polite reminder to keep the gate closed to keep pupils inside there is a small statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the 12th-century patron saint of animals. Small groups of individuals go through the gate to take a tour of the 3-acre facility at the uphill end of Kealaloa Avenue.
This is home for Hawaii Canines for Independence, which does business as Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, a nonprofit, internationally known training organization founded by Will and Maureen "Mo" Maurer. In 2000, the two Mauians realized how difficult it was for Hawaii residents to obtain guide dogs. Their first stop on a 13-year journey was the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind to learn how to train dogs. Or, as they put it, "unleashing abilities," the mission-statement motto at the state-of-the-art facility built with more than $100,000 in grants and donations.
The visitors crowd the reception area. The walls are covered with portraits of the more than 30 service dogs that have successfully gone through up to two years of training. Mo Maurer, a one-time CPA, is proud of the graduates. She sketches the work being done and asks if there are any questions.
The knee-high son of Pam and Pat Sakamoto is the first to stick up his hand. "Where are the doggies?" Mo smiles. "We'll see them in a few minutes."
She and an intern from Argentina lead the group into a courtyard carpeted with Astro Turf. On one side of the courtyard is a big training room. On the other, there are two kennels holding four big, happy-looking dogs well into their training.
"They're in kennels only because we have visitors. Most of the time, they are free to run around," Mo explains. Behind the kennels is an outdoor training field littered with various kinds of obstacles the dogs learn to negotiate.
Off to the side stands a volunteer wearing the organization's blue "uniform" T-shirt. Mo introduces Elaine Randall, "our star puppy raiser. She takes them everywhere with her, even to her job at Dick's Fumigation." The idea is to get the dogs used to people and different situations before they get down to their specialized training. Every dog is also very familiar with the Maurer home.
The dogs come from around the world. One is a fourth-generation service dog from New Zealand. Each candidate for training is "carefully screened" and some don't make it through the course. "People's lives depend on the dogs," Mo says. There's a list of families ready to take the animals who don't make the grade.
There aren't many who flunk out. "We have a graduation rate of 70 percent. The national average is 30 percent," Mo tells the visitors.
From inside the kennels, the dogs watch Mo intently and respond enthusiastically when she says their name. The visitors are given a look at the outdoor training area. The group moves to a large room with mock doors, light switches that work and padded benches simulating furniture.
While Mo heads back to the reception area for the next group of visitors, the intern takes over. Marina is a young veterinary student in Buenos Aires and came to Maui after hearing about the experience from a previous intern.
A video presentation stars Emma, Zeus and Tucker. Emma was matched with an ocean-loving paraplegic. She rides with him on a kayak, can pull him into shore if necessary and routinely drags a wheelchair up from the water line. Zeus goes to school with a quadriplegic university instructor who speaks via computer. "I had to learn hand signals for 90 commands," he says. "Zeus learned them more quickly than I did." Tucker wears a badge that says "Chief Canine Officer" at Kapiolani Medical Center. His job is comforting children five days a week. One of his commands is "snuggle."
A new program involves dogs who can detect seizures and alert caregivers. You'd be surprised at how many different ways the dogs can make a person's life livable. See assistancedogshawaii.org.
Marina is asked if she's sad when a dog graduates. Her face lights up. "No. I'm so happy they can help someone."
After refreshments and playing with one of the canine students, the tour is over. There is sunshine all around.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.