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Lions’ Guide Dog Wins American Humane Guide Dog of the Year Award

Madeleine Miller, ABC January 10, 2019

They say that a dog is a man’s best friend. But for Lion Holly Bonner, her dog is not only her best friend, she is her guiding light, her GPS, the eyes that see what she cannot.

Frances is a four-year old female yellow Labrador guide dog that came to live with Holly, her husband, Joe, and their two daughters several years ago. She was placed with the Bonners by Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

The world is filled with suffering. But it’s also filled with overcoming it…I am living proof.

Frances is Holly’s constant companion. She accompanies her everywhere, helping her safely navigate the streets of Staten Island, New York, to her adjunct professor job at the Metropolitan College of New York, the grocery store, doctors’ appointments or to school to pick up her children.

But Frances is no longer an unsung hero. She was recently voted the United States’ Guide/Hearing Dog of the Year and was a finalist in the 2018 American Humane Hero Dog Awards competition. The two-hour awards show was broadcast on the Hallmark Channel in October 2018.

“Frances allows me to be the mom I want to be,” Holly explained. “I can’t even imagine life without her. She helps me live my life to the fullest, and is almost like another mother to our daughters.”

Putting Up a Courageous FightHolly and Frances

Holly Bonner wasn’t born without sight. At the age of 19, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She courageously battled the disease for more than a decade, enduring endless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, along with 17 surgeries. Then, one afternoon, she took a nap. And when she awoke, she was blind. All the years of chemotherapy treatments brought on a neurological condition that caused her to lose her sight.

In less than 45 minutes, Holly went from being an active, 32-year-old married woman with two master’s degrees and a fulfilling career as a social worker to being a disabled person in need of the very services she specialized in.

“I was incredibly angry,” Holly recalled. “I felt that I had been cheated and didn’t deserve this. It was also extremely frightening. I couldn’t even cross the street by myself.”

Her husband took some time off from his job as a detective specialist with the New York Police Department to be with her, but on the first day he went back to work, she decided to end her life.

From the Depths of Despair to Great Joy

“I went down to the basement,” she said, “and wrapped an extension cord around my neck. And I started talking to God…loudly. I said, ‘God, if you’re here and you’re going to go through this with me, then you’d better show me. Because if not, I’m done. I’m going to kill myself right now.’ Right after that, I began throwing up. Joe came home from work and took me to the hospital, where I found out that I was pregnant. This was the turning point in my life.”

Holly sought professional help and learned how to cook, do laundry and use a computer. But nothing was harder to adjust to than the unkindness of people when they learned she was pregnant. “The message I kept getting from everyone was that I was unfit to be a mother because of my visual impairment,” she said. “It was so hurtful. Some people would even ask if I was keeping the baby.”

Nine months later, the Bonners joyfully welcomed their first daughter, Nuala, and, two years after that, Aoife was born. “My girls are the reason I get up every day,” Holly said. “They’ve renewed my hope in life.”

Holly and Franny image

And, with Frances by her side, Holly has another purpose in life. She’s on a mission to educate children (grades K-2) about visually-impaired people through her Visually Impaired Education Program (VIEP). She and Frances visit classrooms in the area to help end the stereotypes associated with blindness. “My goal is to help children understand that blind people are just like everyone else,” she said.

A member of the North Star Lions Club on Staten Island, Holly thoroughly enjoys being a part of the club and of Lions International. “I love how Lions have such a long history of working with the blind and visually impaired,” she said. “You don’t realize how much this matters until you lose your sight. My club members are very supportive of everything I do. I’m so proud to be a Lion!”

Holly is currently working on her Ph.D., focusing on helping clergy of all religions serve the blind and visually impaired. “The world is filled with suffering,” she observed. “But it’s also filled with overcoming it. Anyone who loses his vision can adapt and live a full life with the help of these wonderful guide dogs. You can adapt to any circumstance that life throws at you. I am living proof.”

Watch the story of Holly and Frances.

Learn more about one of Lions’ important global causes—vision.

Madeleine Miller, ABC is the senior strategic communications specialist for Lions International.