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Guide Dog and Teen Charm the Lions

Local girl is one of only a handful of U.S. children with guide dogs.

Newton sat on the floor of the Wilson Community Center. Dozens of members of the Easton and Wilson Lions Clubs were all around, eating and talking. 

Most dogs would consider this a feast for the nose -- or, given the buffet, just a feast -- but not Newton. He stayed with Maddie, where he's supposed to be.

Since last year, Newton has served as guide dog for Maddie Link, an Allentown teenager born with Leber’s Congenital Amourosis, which left her blind.

The idea of someone with a visual impairment having a guide dog isn't uncommon, but Maddie is a special case: at 15, she's one of only a handful of kids in the U.S. with a guide dog from the Mira Foundation, which places dogs with disabled kids.

Typically, guide dogs go to people over 18, said Kathy Link, Maddie's mother. She had accompanied Maddie to the Lions meeting, where her daughter would be the guest speaker.

 "It's not a pet, and it is a lot of responsibility," she said, describing the guide dog/owner relationship. 

Thanks to Mira, Maddie was able to travel to Canada last summer to meet/bond with/train Newton and bring him back home in time for her freshman year at Allentown Central Catholic.

On stage before the Lions, Maddie talked about life at school. Teachers make it easy for her, e-mailing lessons home.

Technology makes it easier. Maddie can listen to her books on a small device instead of having to lug around heavy Braille texts. There's also a tablet with voice-activated software, and a program that can take pictures of things, and then tell Maddie what the picture shows.

And Newton -- a Labrador/Bernese Mountain dog mix named for the chemist -- makes it easier, guiding her around Central Catholic's halls.

("Newton," by the way, is sort of an alias. The dog has a name only Maddie uses, so he'll respond to only her commands.)

At the start of the school year, Maddie -- ACC's first blind student -- gave her classmates this lesson:

"'I know that he's cute, but this is how it is: No petting, no talking,'" she said, recalling her presentation. "It's difficult, because at this point in the year, he's starting to recognize my friends."

At home, things are a little different. Newton gets some downtime, gets to run and play like an ordinary pet. It's part of the Mira philosophy, Maddie said: give dogs a chance to be dogs.

"After school he gets to act like a regular dog," she said. "You can really see the lab in him."

Maddie's talk -- and her dog -- charmed the Lions. There were quite a few "Awwwws" throughout the evening. She also provided musical entertainment before dinner, playing the harp, an instrument she picked up in the third grade.

Kathy Link said at first it didn't seem promising. On the way to her first lesson, Maddie asked her mother if she'd need a bow to play the harp.

Then they got to the lesson.

"And she put he hands on the strings like she'd been doing it all her life," Kathy said.

Maddie has performed at Musikfest, Bethlehem's Celtic Fest, and on WFMZ. 

After her talk, both Lions chapters donated $100 to the Mira Foundation, and gave another $50 to Maddie. The men who won that night's 50/50 drawing also stopped by to give her their winnings. 

She reached up and took the money and thanked them. Newton sniffed the cash, like he was giving it his blessing.

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