Canine Companion: A Guide for a Blind 5-Year-Old’s Journey Towards an Exciting Future

Junie met Merlot the Labrador retriever through Southeastern Guide Dogs’ Kids Companion program, which matches children with vision loss with trained, supportive furry friends

Destiny Fiaschetti knew from a young age that she wanted to foster children.

“It’s just always been a matter-of-fact thing for me, like, yes, I’m going to be a mom of children that I foster and adopt,” Fiaschetti, 24, tells PEOPLE.

At 22, the Army veteran started fostering children after medically retiring from the military.

“At first, it was kind of devastating because I had all these goals for my career in the army, and this is not how I had anticipated it going. And then it became clear that I was in the perfect circumstance to start fostering and dedicate all of my time to kids that needed that extra time and that extra love,” Fiaschetti, who lives in Seffner, Florida, says.

A Texas foster care provider contacted Fiaschetti shortly after the veteran became a foster parent, looking for a home for a 2-year-old boy with autism named Junie.

“He’s completely blind and has septo-optic dysplasia, a rare disorder that led to his vision loss and panhypopituitarism — a disorder of the pituitary gland,” Fiaschetti explains.

“This causes adrenal insufficiency. His body doesn’t produce stress hormones, so he can’t tolerate stress. And he requires stress testing throughout the day,”

The veteran’s response to hearing about Junie was, “How quickly can he get here?”

After Fiaschetti completed training to care for Junie and received approval from a judge to foster the toddler, the veteran started caring for the boy.

“He was severely delayed when he came into foster care. At two, he wasn’t crawling; he wasn’t walking, and he really wasn’t talking. He didn’t have communication skills,” Fiaschetti said of meeting Junie.

“I was told I needed to be careful because whenever anyone got near him, he would bite them,” she adds. “He was scared of his surroundings and hadn’t been approached safely leading up to that.”

Fiaschetti saw a child waiting for his chance to shine in Junie.

“Don’t underestimate our kids and the power of love. People see kids in foster care and can immediately think negative thoughts and are scared to give them a chance,” Fiaschetti saysDeaf Dog Finds His Forever Home with Deaf Teen with Autism: ‘He Has to Be Mine!’

She adopted Junie on September 29, 2020.

At age five, Junie is sunny, social, and eager to offer compassion.

“He definitely talks a lot now. He’s a little social butterfly. He loves making friends,” Junie’s mom shares of the kid her son has become. “He’s super adventurous. He loves going out and exploring his surroundings. Totally fearless. He will try anything and everything he can. And he’s just like a complete cuddle bug.”

By Junie’s side, helping him explore, navigate and meet the world head-on, is Merlot, the boy’s canine companion.

Merlot is a Labrador retriever provided to Junie for free from Southeastern Guide Dogs as part of the nonprofit’s Kids Companion program.

The program is designed for “children who have vision loss between the ages of 5 and 17,” according to Katie Perez, the manager of programs for children and teens at Southeastern Guide Dogs and a certified guide dog instructor.

“The Kids Companion program helps to close that gap and bridge that gap between the young child of today and the independent guide dog handler of tomorrow,” Perez says.

“Children Junie’s age learn how to feed the dogs, how to brush the dogs. We teach them basic obedience skills so that they can work with their dog and keep that bond going so that later on, they’ll already have a leg ahead when matched with a guide dog. They’ll be better prepared for it. The kids gain tremendous confidence from it,” she adds.Hero Cat Saves Owner from Heart Attack by Pounding Paws on Her Chest: ‘Very Grateful’

Merlot matched with Junie after Perez spotted posts on a Facebook group she and Fiaschetti follow: Sarah’s Walking Club. Much of the talk in the group revolved around parks and walking trails to visit. Fiaschetti often shared details about the nature walks she took with Junie, who adores admiring the outdoors, on the Facebook page.

“We could find cool parks to explore and things like that,” the veteran says about why she joined the group. “And Junie kind of got a bit of a fan following on there pretty quickly.”

Once Perez learned a bit about Junie through Fiaschetti’s posts in the group, she “reached out in a private message and said, ‘Listen, I’m not trying to overstep, but I wanted to let you know that Southeastern has this free program for children Junie’s age, which is our Kids Companion program,’” Perez says.

Fiaschetti discussed the idea of welcoming a dog through the program with Junie: “We were both really excited.”

“Within a few months, we had Merlot,” she adds.

Junie and Merlot became best friends without hesitation and now spend their days together.

“The two of them have matching energy levels. She is very excitable and loves to run around and play with him. They go to the pool together. He tries to sneak her into the bathtub. It’s enjoyable watching him kind of show her the farm, show her the animals, talk to her about things, and play with her. He has taken on the responsibility of feeding her and giving her treats,” Fiaschetti says of how Merlot has added to their lives.

She hopes that others will see the joy between Junie and Merlot and be reminded of the amazing things all children can do when given love and support.

“Junie is just as worthy as any other kid out there, just as capable as any other kid out there, and his disability is not something to look down on,” Fiaschetti says, adding, “blindness is not a curse, being adopted is not a curse, being in foster care is not a curse. These things are part of Junie’s story, and part of who he is, but it’s not a negative aspect of him.”

Those interested in learning more about Southeastern Guide Dogs, the nonprofit’s Kids Companion program, should visit the organization’s website, says Perez.

“All of our funds come from generous donations from the public. We have various ways, both monetarily and physically, that people help the organization. One of the ways that people help is that we have puppy raisers all across the country. And after the dogs are bred and born on campus, they stay with us; it varies, but somewhere between 12 and 14 weeks typically, and then we have volunteer puppy raisers that help to teach them all of their basic obedience. They expose them to the world. They live with them in their home for that next year until they’re ready to come back for their formal guide dog training,” she adds.