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Walkathon unites furry heroes with those who need them most

Southeastern Guide Dogs trains extraordinary guide and service dogs for people in need
Southeastern Guide Dogs is seeking families to help raise puppies that may be used to help veterans.

Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child, Chad Bouton experiences progressive vision loss and night blindness.

After struggling to navigate his college campus at the University of West Florida, Chad turned to Southeastern Guide Dogs. The school that breeds and trains extraordinary guide and service dogs matched Bouton with a sweet black Lab named Andros.

"This young man has since become a role model of hope and courage," said Jennifer Bryan, director of philanthropy. "With Andros by his side, Chad now works as a Walkathon assistant for Southeastern Guide Dogs."

Thousands of heartwarming success stories like Bouton's can be told about the nonprofit, Palmetto-based school, which has been accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation and Assistance Dogs International.

Since 1982, Southeastern Guide Dogs has created more than 3,100 guide and service dog teams, all provided at no cost to people with vision loss and veterans with PTSD and other disabilities. Today, the organization actively serves and supports more than 550 furry graduates and their handlers throughout the United States.

Southeastern Guide Dogs has some of the most accomplished and innovative scientists and trainers operating some of the most advanced training facilities of any service dog organization in the world. The 33-acre campus now encompasses six modern, state-of-the-art facilities totaling 100,000 square feet.

In recent years, the campus has undergone extensive upgrades and renovations, made possible by a community of donors participating in a series of capital improvement campaigns totaling $30 million.

Of course, the need for donations is ongoing as the organization expands its reach. One of the more pleasurable and festive ways to lend support, the Southeastern Guide Dogs Walkathon gathers the public for fun, food and recreation in downtown St. Petersburg every spring. The festive event returns to North Straub Park on Saturday, March 21 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., with activities for both dogs and their human counterparts.

An annual tradition, the Southeastern Guide Dogs Walkathon has spread awareness and received support for the organization's trainers, staff and facility for 34 years. Registration for walkers begins at 9 a.m.; the 3K trek begins at 10 a.m.

If you're not able to participate in the walk, you can still make a donation at the event's family- and dog-friendly celebration. Admission is free.

A prize drawing at noon awards $1,000 in cash, and tickets will be available for a later raffle for $10,000 cash on May 11. That drawing will be held on the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus, viewable live on the Southeastern Guide Dogs Facebook page.

The walkathon has seen continued success and growth; the event began in Palmetto in 1986 and has since expanded to other areas. This year's celebration commemorates its seventh year in St. Petersburg, organized by a committee of community representatives, staff, volunteers and sponsors.

Forty vendors will be on hand, including presenting sponsor Progressive and signature sponsors Subaru of America, Fromm Dog Food and Elanco Animal Health. St. Petersburg-based supporters include GTE Financial, Catalina Marketing, Clearwater Kennel Club, the Tampa Bay Times, FIS, Optimart and Suncoast Credit Union. DJ Stepchild will provide the soundtrack; by day, he goes by Sean Brown and is a graduate and employee of Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Attendees can enjoy treats from Woof Gang Bakery, check out the merchandise offered by local pet boutiques and learn about local businesses that can help with your canine parenting. Food options include Mike's Big Dogs – sure to be a hit with the kids who enjoy hotdogs, mac and cheese, and tater tots.

Recreation for kids and their dogs includes carnival-style and endurance games. Retrievers can enjoy a tennis ball-in-pool dive; spirited terriers can release energy on a velour course chasing an electronic decoy.

During the event, you can learn about services from Northeast Animal Hospital, cool off with some Kona Ice and Scoop Dogg treats for your pups, relax in the Great Bay beer garden and enjoy visits to the booths of Great Explorations Museum, Black Crow Coffee and Tito's Handmade Vodka.

Dogs must be friendly and on a nonretractable leash to be a part of the event. An additional raffle with prizes from local museums, restaurants and other businesses will incentivize donations.

St. Pete's Southeastern Guide Dogs Walkathon raises more than $250,000 a year, attracting around a thousand attendees. Parking is available at the Sundial Parking Garage, and metered parking is available on city streets adjacent to the park.

"Those who attend the Southeastern Guide Dogs Walkathon will help bring well-trained, loyal and affectionate dogs to a wide range of households and workplaces," Bryan added. "Southeastern Guide Dogs receives no government funding and relies on donors to provide its services at no cost."

To participate in the Southeastern Guide Dogs Walkathon, or for more information on the nonprofit organization, call (941) 729-5665 or visit GuideDogs.org.

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