Les, who is originally from Lisburn, moved to Portadown 20 years ago after getting married to Stephanie, who is from Tandragee. They have a 17-year-old son Reece.
From childhood he suffered from poor eyesight but still managed to work in a warehouse until his eyesight became so bad he was unable to get up and down ladders or see products.
When that happened and he sought medical advice, he was told there was little they could do to save his sight and he decided, he said, to ‘just to get on with it’.
His dog Munro, who is aged five, is a lifeline for Les and helps him navigate the town so he can visit a restaurant, go to the supermarket and get some exercise. Munro has been very much part of the family for three years.
"My son Reece has a cochlear implant and also Autism. Reece and Munro have a real close bond. Munro has made a huge difference to our family dynamics. He is just a lifesaver,” said Les who is now aged 46. “He loves getting out. He doesn’t like sitting about the house but he likes getting out and loves meeting people as well.”
"Munro keeps me going,” said Les. “He is a very active, strong dog. He is a fantastic dog who just loves a lot of attention. But sometimes people don’t realise he is a working dog. If you are going from A to B, ie a doctor appointment, the dog knows where he is going and the last thing he or the guide dog owner needs is to be distracted.
Les reminded people to please come over and say hello but ask before they stroke Munro or any other dog. “Sometimes people just come up and automatically stroke him but you don’t know what’s going on and the dog is here and there and you are thinking ‘what’s happening’. “Most people are very understanding.”
He explained that the Guide Dogs NI group bring the dog to meet the family as they want each dog to suit the right family. “They have a walk around to see what you do, where you go, what shops you go to. They they would bring around six dogs over from Scotland. They would discuss their clients and say, for example, Mr Massey walks at this speed and here are his routes etc. Then they pick a dog that would suit your speed. Some people walk really slow and others fairly fast. Some people only go out once a week and others more. So the dog has to be for you and you have to be right for the dog. It’s a joint partnership. They don’t just hand you a dog and away you go. There’s a lot of work that goes into it”
Les, who is Co-Ordinator of the Armagh Tail-Blazer’s Fundraising Group who are coming off two of their most successful year’s ever, with a boost from a Charity of the Year partnership with former Lord Mayor, Alderman Glenn Barr.
There are five volunteers altogether but Les believes with more help they could raise much more money for the training of these Guide Dogs and help a lot more people live an independent life.
The group is based in Portadown and covers a wide area, including Lurgan, Craigavon and Armagh City. “We are hoping to spread our wings across the rest of Co Armagh but we need more volunteers,” said Les. “Five of us can only do so much. If we had more volunteers we could spread out a bit more. No one is expected to do or go anywhere unless they are free. We are just volunteers and do this when we can but usually we manage to do all we are asked."
Les explained that the group goes out and do collections on flag day. There are also guide dog collection boxes on counters in shops across the area as well as the large guide dog collection boxes in the bigger supermarkets which all need emptied regularly, a job Les and his team carry out. They also have regular get-togethers usually in the ASDA cafe in Portadown.
The success of Glenn’s fundraising efforts, through events and fundraisers with the Armagh Tail-blazers enabled the former Mayor to raise enough money to 'Name a Puppy' – Biscuit, who is currently being homed and given basic training by volunteer Puppy Raisers in Bangor. Also, from this success, four golf clubs in the area linked in with Guide Dogs with Charity of the Year partnerships.
Guide Dogs NI spokesperson said: “Without the work of the fundraising group or the generosity of the public, we wouldn’t be able to create so many wonderful partnerships such as Les and Munro.
"The black Labrador Retriever cross at Les’s side was also a Name a Puppy. Munro was named by a Guide Dogs staff member who is in charge of a fundraising group named Hillary’s Hikers, who went to Everest Base Camp and raised enough to name several puppies.
The Armagh Tail-Blazers want to keep the momentum going into 2023 and are extremely keen to welcome new members, who can give as much or as little time as they can, into the fold. If you want to get in touch with Les and the group, email him on [email protected] or call him on 07554898539.
Organisations or individuals who wish to Name a Puppy, take on a fundraising challenge, or secure Guide Dogs NI as Charity of the Year, are equally welcome and should get in touch with Fundraising Manager Gary Wilson at [email protected] or 07468 712007.