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VISION AWARENESS WEEK: Levi leads the way

Paul Simonson and his guide dog Levi walk together near downtown Bemidji. (Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—Ring the doorbell at the home of Paul and Lois Simonson and you'll likely be greeted by Levi, a two-year old yellow British Labrador.

At home, Levi is your typical happy-go-lucky dog. But if you come across Paul and Levi on a walk, you'll meet Levi, the working dog.

"When I put him in harness and have hold of that handle, it's like there's a switch. I don't really flip a switch, but it's like a switch and then suddenly he is working," Paul explained.

Levi is a guide dog for Paul, who has been legally blind since 1991. Levi was trained through Leader Dogs for the Blind, a program based in Rochester Hills, Mich. Before bringing Levi home, Paul visited the facility to work with Levi and his trainers.

Levi, a yellow British Labrador guide dog, leads Paul Simonson around a branch on the sidewalk near downtown Bemidji.

"The first two days that I was there, they literally just have you going around with your mobility cane. They are looking at your stride, your pace, your demeanor and then they match you up with a dog," Paul said.

The Leader Dogs for the Blind program was founded by three Detroit-area Lions Clubs members in 1939. The program originally was called the Lions Leader Dog Foundation but following incorporation, the Lions International Board of Directors requested the word "Lions" be removed, although Lions Clubs organizations continue to act as the backbone of Leader Dogs.

Vision Awareness Week

Vision, along with hearing, diabetes and youth, is one of the main pillars of the Lions Club organization. The local Lions organizations, the First City Lions and the Bemidji Lions, also continue to support the cause.

The Bemidji Lions, in association with BSU football, Walman Optical, will host the 12th annual Lions Vision Awareness this week, continuing through Saturday.

The week will include a free children's vision clinic from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Monday at Sanford Eye Services, 1611 Anne St. Eyeglasses are provided at no charge to children in need by Walman Optical.

"Most common things are lazy eye. Those kids slip through the cracks, they try to do a good job at school screenings," said Jim Molde, eye doctor and Bemidji Lions board member. "Were trying to treat those kids early. The earlier you can treat a lazy eye, the better off they are going to be and the better the chance of recovering or restoring fairly normal vision."

The Lions Vision Awareness football game will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Chet Anderson Stadium. The Beavers will take on the Northern State Wolves.

Levi is a yellow British Labrador guide dog for Paul Simonson.

What Levi provides

Levi and Paul have been working together as a team since January. Although Levi is not Paul's first guide dog, that was Ziggy. Unfortunately Ziggy, while walking with Paul, was twice attacked by other dogs.

"It so traumatized, Ziggy," Paul said. "They told me that he would be more of a liability than an asset."

Paul, who is considered legally blind, can see slightly, but his vision is very foggy.

"One of my eye doctors said, 'If somebody asked you what do you see, tell them to smear vaseline on their glasses and look through a paper towel tube' and that's more than I see," Paul said. "There's times I can be less than six feet away from my wife and not be sure it's her."

Having a dog to walk with has provided Paul a sense of independence he hasn't felt in some time. And there's the safety factor, as well.

"Before the dog, I was followed seven times," Paul said. "I had done Dragonboat Festival, where I sell my little yo-yo balloon things. I had over $700 cash in my apron. I saw this guy standing over there. He (Levi) gives independence, he gives a little level of security and that, in Bemidji, that is a big deal."

Paul Simonson and his guide dog Levi cross a street while on a walk together near downtown Bemidji.

Maggi Stivers

Maggi Stivers is a Multi-Media Journalist at the Bemidji Pioneer. She covers art and entertainment in the Bemidji area. She is a 2013 Bemidji State graduate majoring in mass communications with a minor in sociology. Contact her at (218) 333-9790 or

(218) 333-9790