Leader Dogs for the Blind Offers Excellent Orientation and Mobility Training

A few years ago, after several serious injuries, I knew it was time to seek white cane training. The wait for such services in my state can be 2-3 years long. I took to the internet to find alternatives and discovered the Accelerated Orientation and Mobility (AOM) program at Leader Dogs for the Blind. This week-long course was free, including airfare to the training center in Michigan. I knew this was a great opportunity so I applied. It was one of the most important steps I have taken to adjust to my vision loss.

I had no idea how much there was to learn about Orientation and Mobility and how much it would change my life for the better. I had a wonderful experience at Leader Dogs and want to share this resource with others who may be considering cane training. Here you will find an interview with Erica Ihrke who works at Leader Dog with the AOM program.

Male student learning to cross a street with his O+M instructor looking on

Client crossing street with instructor looking on

Audrey: Tell me a bit about yourself, credentials, and professional experience.

Erica: I am a Certified Orientation & Mobility Specialist (COMS) and the Manager of Extended Services at Leader Dogs for the Blind. I’ve been employed at Leader Dog for the past 16 years. I have a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Central Michigan University and Master of Arts in Orientation & Mobility from Western Michigan University.

I have been a part of the team to incorporate GPS into the guide dog curriculum here at Leader Dog. Accelerated O&M Training has grown from an average of 26 clients per year to 75 last fiscal year. Summer Experience Camp was developed and O&M Interns are now a part of the Leader Dog culture. I have published two research articles with colleagues about GPS and its benefits for people who are blind or visually impaired. Additionally, I have presented at local, national & international conferences about the Leader Dog model used for O&M instruction and various topics related to accessible GPS.

Audrey: What do you find most rewarding about teaching O+M skills to clients?

Erica: The thing I love most about teaching O&M is actually teaching. Through the model that we use at Leader Dog we quickly see growth in skills. Clients that arrive on Sunday and depart the following Saturday are noticeably transformed with new skills for daily travel.

Audrey: Why are O+M and cane skills important? What do you see as the benefits to clients?

Erica: O&M skills are so important because if you know how to get somewhere and can do it safely then opportunities are made available. The benefits are endless… socialization, work, fitness and health, etc.

Audrey: Can you give a brief explanation of the training and highlight the skills needed to be a safe and independent traveler?

Erica: O&M training that occurs through Accelerated O&M at Leader Dog starts with arrivals on Sunday and departures on Saturday. One -on-one instruction with a COMS occurs Monday through Friday. On each day two to three lessons are completed in morning and afternoon sessions with short breaks in between each lesson to digest information. Generally one night travel lesson is accomplished after dark one evening. The skills taught to be a safe and independent traveler include using a white cane, utilizing a human guide,orientation skills and cardinal directions (i.e., north, south, east, west) to know where you are, where you want to go and how to get there, solving problems such as barriers, crowds, etc., crossing streets safely, re-orientating, shopping, soliciting assistance when needed, and more. Training takes place in a wide variety of environments, such as residential, semi-business, business, city and country settings.

Accelerated O&M training is provided free of charge at Leader Dogs for the Blind’s Rochester Hills, Michigan campus to those who are legally blind and at least 16 years of age, regardless of whether or not they plan to eventually train with a guide dog. Individualized, one-on-one instruction is provided during five days to meet goals agreed on by the client and COMS

Audrey: In your professional opinion, when is it time for O+M training? How do you know when you are ready for this as a visually impaired person?

Erica: It’s time for O&M training when you find yourself looking down to travel rather than keeping your head up, when you find that you are bumping into things that you didn’t see, or when you find you are limiting the places to which you go. O&M training is not a one-time instruction and then you are done. If you have had O&M training previously you should consider retraining if you are experiencing changes in your environment (a move or new traffic controls are put into place) or changes in your confidence or skill level.

Female student walking with her new white cane

Client walking with O+M instructor

Audrey: What do you see as the barriers and resistance clients have to O+M training?

Erica: One barrier to O&M training may be that the individual is waiting for services in his/her home area and that service is not provided in a frequent and on-going manner. A resistance to O&M training may be that someone does not want to carry a white cane. In this instance it is best that the individual is accepting of needing some assistance. A cane is an identifier and does create more awareness of a person’s visual impairment. Additionally it is a tool that can help identify obstacles and locate landmarks. But there is more to O&M than utilizing a white cane. More importantly it is knowing where you are, being able to plan where you want to go & knowing how to get there safely.

Audrey: What do clients say once they have experienced the skills to travel with a cane?

Erica: I’ve had several clients tell me that they didn’t think they needed more O&M training and they just came because we required it for them to go on to guide dog training with a Leader Dog. They have ALL also told me that they were extremely glad they came for training because they learned so much and now felt more comfortable with their travel abilities.

“[Because my O&M instructor is keeping me safe during training] I know that I am going to be able to make mistakes, it’s going to be OK, and I’m also going to be able to succeed and feel good about it,” said client Sheila Roussey.

“I just wanted to get more proficient to use the cane so that I could get around a lot better and not have to depend on people,” said client Susan Miller.

Thank you Erica for sharing this information. And thank you Leader Dogs for the Blind for your commitment and dedication to the mission of empowering people who are blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind with lifelong skills of independent and safe travel. To learn more and apply to the AOM program visit: http://www.leaderdog.org/clients/programs/accelerated-o-m-program                                                                        Happy Trails!!

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Ski for Light Focuses on Abilities Not Disabilities

I just returned from the 2015 International Ski for Light event in Granby Colorado. It was an amazing week of cross-country skiing under big, blue skies in the Rocky Mountains. We enjoyed well-groomed trails, sunny days, beautiful snow, and crisp mountain air.  The  best part though was connecting with a group of inspiring people.

My first day on skis-note the tracks in the snow

My first day on skis-note the tracks in the snow

A First Time Skier

Ski for Light is a non-profit organization run by all volunteers, which enables visually impaired and mobility impaired individuals to enjoy a week of skiing with a personal guide. There were 100 dis-Abled skiers, 100 sighted guides and a host of other volunteers who make the week go smoothly.  I am so thrilled to have had this opportunity to learn to ski for the first time in my life. I had no idea whether I would be able to do it but as it turns out, I can…even at my age and with the little bit of vision I have left! It was a memorable week which taught me I can do more than I think I can.

A Full-Inclusion Program

I learned about the program from a friend who is also keen on new adventures. She has been attending Ski for Light for many years. In my retirement, I am determined to try new things, learn new skills and get fit. So this opportunity was exciting and I did not hesitate to sign up. It spurred me on to join the gym and exercise regularly so I would not embarrass myself. I arrived in fairly good shape, though there is always room for improvement. I worked hard at learning the basics of cross-country skiing with my experienced guide/instructor Lynn Cox. She has been coming to SFL for many years, volunteering her time and at her own expense, to guide and teach visually impaired skiers. The guides are trained to work with the visually impaired and most are accomplished skiers who can share their expertise. We are treated with respect, dignity, and full inclusion and it is easy to forget you are visually impaired while at SFL. And that is a wonderful thing!

Pushing Past Personal Limits

Well, as it turns out, I have a special talent for falling safely and popping up quickly which I demonstrated over and over. This is an important skill, but it was not the one at which I wanted to excel. All week, I tried to fall less and ski more smoothly. I set goals for myself and worked to do my personal best each day. In the end, I improved every day; skiing farther, faster, and with fewer falls with the support and encouragement from Lynn at my side. That is what it is all about; learning your limits and then pushing past them! I have a lot more to learn and hope to master that darn “snow plow” next year.

Lynn and I after completing the 5k Rally-note the beautiful medals!

Lynn and I after completing the 5k Rally-note the beautiful medals!

A Well-Rounded Program

Ski for Light does a fantastic job of not only accommodating all levels of disabilities, but also all levels of skiing ability from the first timer to the serious race competitor. The guides are carefully matched with a skier in order to achieve the skier’s goals for the week. The program offers special interest workshops, evening entertainment and lots of opportunities to make new friends. The cost is subsidized by generous donor funds and scholarships are available for first-timers.

An Inspiring Week

I heard many inspiring stories and witnessed something special at SFL this week.  Harald Vik is 72 years old, deaf-blind and from Norway. He has been coming to SFL for years. Last year he was hit by a car while riding in a tandem bike event and sustained many broken bones. He was determined to be at this year’s event even if he had to use a sit-ski (for the mobility impaired skier). I met him out on the trails making his way on his own two legs after months of rehab and therapy. I call him “Amazing Harald.” And one bright day on the trails, I was passed up by a 93 year old gentleman who is totally blind and has been coming to SFL for more than 20 years. Way to stay young and active, Charlie! Yes, the dis-Abled skiers were inspiring to me…but so were the dedicated guides and volunteers who come back year after year with such a heart of service and passion for this excellent program.

Harald Vik and his interpreters from Norway.

Harald Vik and his interpreters from Norway.

Is Ski for Light For YOU?

Are you looking for a new adventure? Do you like to be active and learn new skills? Ski for Light may just be the thing for you!  Learn more at www.sfl.org  I will be there next year, will you?

[SFL logo]

A Hiking We All Went

 

“Not all those who wander are lost”

                               J.R.R. Tolkien

I recently returned from a wonderful hiking trip. I was invited to join nine other women on their annual hiking adventure which they have taken for the last 16 years together. When I received the invitation, I hardly stopped to think about it. Count me in any time there is hiking, a chance to travel, and an opportunity to make new friends. I had never met these women and this would be my first “Hen Hike.”

The Hens-lunch at the waterfall

The Hens-lunch at the waterfall

 The Hens are made up of five visually impaired women and five sighted guides who have been friends for years. They are the kind of women who are “shakers and movers,” impressive in their vivacious spirits and thirst for adventure. Most of them have been involved with Ski For Light, Inc. (which I will write about in another post), where the sighted guides have developed their skill to guide the visually impaired and their selfless sense of service as volunteers. It is a group of physically fit and “aging gracefully” women who know how to have fun! They are world travelers, survivors of some of life’s most difficult challenges, professionals, wise, well-read, kind and gracious ladies. And it was such a privilege to be among them!

 We stayed at the Starlight Inn in northeast Pennsylvania. It is nestled in the country, overlooking a lake and surrounded by scenic trails. Sari the innkeeper, runs the quaint establishment with other family members. Wholesome and homemade meals are served in the cozy dining room where you feel as though you are part of the family. Every day, we were sent off on our hike with made-to-order sack lunches; meaty sandwiches on freshly baked bread, crisp apples and homemade cookies.

Fall colors on the trail-Betty and Susan

Fall colors on the trail-Betty and Susan

 

Each morning we hit the trails paired up with our guide for the day. The trees were spectacular in their fall “coats of many colors.” We walked the woodsy paths, side by side, at an easy pace and lost ourselves in companionable conversations. Breathing in the cool fresh air, we merrily trudged along in our broken-in boots,LLBean flannels and brandishing our walking canes. The sun was bright on our faces as we wandered the forest, leaving behind the worries of the world. The hikes were pleasant and we covered quite a bit of ground. We discovered several waterfalls and open meadows which were perfect lunch spots. It was refreshing and relaxing to enjoy the beautiful scenery with new friends who also appreciated nature.

 The hiking was only half the fun. Every day, we gathered in the “parlor” for Happy Hour, sipping wine and nibbling cheese and crackers. We shared stories of our lives and talked about the day’s highlights. Each day, I learned more about the Hens and grew to appreciate their colorful personalities, their vitality, and their fun-loving, adventurous spirits. After our lovely evening meals, we retired to the sun porch to play games. Some of the Hens pulled out their knitting as we played. We cackled and laughed until we cried and our sides hurt! And after much mirth and merriment, we trotted off to bed, full and satisfied with the day’s activities.

Hen Hike 2014

Hen Hike 2014

 This trip was such a joy. Everything went smoothly and the group meshed so well. I am grateful to these special women for welcoming me warmly and sharing their lives with me. I appreciated what the guides did for us VIPs (visually impaired person) and I was inspired by the VIPs. It is always reassuring to me to be with others who are visually impaired and managing life so well…it empowers me to keep on and encourages me to “see the possibilities” for new adventures. Happy Trails!

 

Happy Birthday Ms. Sophie!

My guide dog turned 5 years old yesterday. All day I pondered the ways she enriches my life and facilitates my independence. I celebrated her with extra hugs and special attentions and she ate it up. I even fixed her a “birthday” treat which my sister shared with me. (Take several doggie treats and place them in a small bowl. Cover with water or chicken broth and freeze. Pop it out of the bowl and give to your dog) Sophie loved her popsicle and worked on it out in the yard. She also got a juicy bone to chew today!

Sophie enjoying her birthday popsicle

Sophie enjoying her birthday popsicle

     ” Be the person your dog thinks you are.”

It just so happened that Leader Dogs for the Blind asked me to write a list of “Top Ten Ways My Leader Dog Assists Me” for a media campaign the day before Sophie’s birthday. I enjoyed thinking about that list and it marked her birthday in a special way. So here is what I came up with:

Top Ten Ways My Leader Dog Assists Me…

    10. My Leader Dog helps me to live a healthy walking lifestyle.

     9.  With my Leader Dog, I am more engaged in my community with    organizations like Lions Clubs and local school groups.

     8. My Leader Dog helps break the ice and start conversations socially.

     7. I feel confident and eager to go places with my Leader Dog.

     6. My Leader Dog gets me from here to there with style, grace, and efficiency.

     5. My Leader Dog keeps me on a schedule and encourages me to play.

     4. My Leader dog helps me walk in a straight line, maintaining my balance, pace, and route.

     3.My Leader Dog assists me to stay safe while walking, avoiding obstacles like curbs, signs, and people.

     2.With my Leader Dog, I am able to walk with my head up and enjoy my surroundings.

…and the #1 way my guide dog assists me is she provides unlimited love, adoration and devotion which lifts my spirit and enriches my life…what is not great about being adored?! 

Happy Birthday Sophie…I love you to the moon and back!

Walking With Sophie

I no longer take this for granted…the ability to walk out my door, unafraid and confident, into the bright and blinding sun to go for a walk in my neighborhood. It is still summer and temperatures will be in the 90’s today, so I try to go early. I don my sunglasses and hat and call to Sophie.

“Let’s go for our walk girl,” I coo. She stretches and eagerly comes forward.

“Get dressed,” I say with the harness out and she slips her head in gracefully.

With one fluid motion, clipping the leash and harness, we are off. We have been a bit off schedule with a recent vacation and extra hot days of late. We both need this walk today to maintain our girlish figures. We have several routes to choose from and will walk two-three miles in all. As we leave the driveway, Sophie demonstrates a strong preference for the route that will take us directly to the ball field where she likes to romp. Not today girl, we need to get in a couple of miles. I coax her in the opposite direction and she obediently but ploddingly complies. I think she is feeling a bit lazy today and I can certainly relate.

“Hup up girl!” I sing to her.

And then I feel it…the spring in her step. Her head is up and she is moving jauntily now. That’s my girl! I have pocketed a couple of treats in case she needs additional motivation today. Sophie knows our routes and she anticipates my commands. We are doing country travel at first. She takes me around several parked cars and trash cans, gliding along. The sun is so painful that I close my eyes as she expertly guides me. She slows when our first turn comes up and angles her body slightly toward the turn.

“Good girl, Sophie! Right!” I praise her as I sweep my arm sideways.

We cross the road and enter the wooded path. Immediately, we both appreciate the shade of the leafy trees and take note of the bird sounds. Sophie’s ears and nose twitch and she is alert. We are walking at a good exercise pace now, stretching out our stride. Suddenly, she stops abruptly and I wonder why. There is debris on the path; fallen tree branches after a storm which I discover with my feet. Ahhh, that’s my girl.

“Good girl, Sophie-that’s it! Good job!” I exclaim and rub her ears.

She saved me from tripping and kissing the asphalt, which I have done many times in the past before I had Sophie. And she earns herself a piece of kibble just because I appreciate her skills. Off we go again. Along the way, we encounter the neighbor’s squawking tropical bird, a barking dog or two, and people on bicycles who whiz past me before I even realize they are there. Sophie takes it all in but remains focused, only needing an occasional reminder to “leave it.” We move as one.

The walking path leaves the woods and we are at a crosswalk, in full sun again. It feels good but the day is definitely heating up. Sophie stands at the crossing, waiting my command. I survey the street; look, listen, and look again.

“Sophie, forward,” I say and we step out into the road and then “find the curb” when we are midway.

There is no fear and no hesitation any more on my part…I am enjoying our morning walk, able to attend to my surroundings and walk with my head up. Because I am not anxious and I can depend on Sophie to do her job, it is a pleasant daily excursion. We cross another road expertly and pick up the path again. Sophie picks up her pace as she knows we are nearing the ball field at the end of our route. A golf cart appears out of nowhere and Sophie angles me to the side of the path, just out of the way of this passing vehicle. She always sees them and hears them coming before I do and is ready to make way. We top the hill and the recreation complex appears. Sophie is excited. Yes girl, we will go play for a while.

“Sophie, right,” I motion and say. She quickly turns on a dime.

We enter the ball field, close all the gates and I release Sophie from her harness. It is like a giant playpen for her and her favorite place. She takes off in a fit of zig-zags, circles and figure eights which I call her “zoomies.” When she tuckers out, she leisurely wanders the field, taking in its intoxicating scents. She could sniff all day-one of her greatest pleasures as a golden retriever. I walk the fence line, listen for the jingle of her collar and keep in touch with her.

“Sophie, touch!” I call to her.

She runs to me and puts her wet nose in the palm of my hand, never very far away. Sometimes, we lie in the sun on the grass together, enjoying the freedom, the exercise, the ease of our relationship and the beauty of the day. It is no small thing to be able to enjoy a walk by yourself with your guide dog. I am blessed and I am grateful for Sophie.

 

Wise Old Trees

A sign which reads "Cathedral Grove-enter quietly"

Muir Woods, a sacred place

As a cellular and developmental biology major, I was fascinated by the diversity of life on this planet Earth. My fascination began in childhood as I roamed the fields and played in the creeks on our farm in Michigan. I loved to collect leaves and bugs, climb trees, watch ants, catch frogs and study flowers. I spent hours outdoors, communing with nature and it was always a spiritual experience for me. I am in awe of the variety of shapes and colors; species and phyla found in the plant and animal kingdoms. And beyond that, the fierce determination to survive and the ability to adapt are impressive. Take the majestic sequoias in Yosemite and their cousins the coastal redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument, where these ancient trees are protected.

It was a privilege to visit these special places. Even with my diminished vision, I was able to sense the grandeur as I entered Mariposa Grove and Cathedral Grove. I walked among trees that were as old as 2000 years, as tall as 379 feet, and as wide as 40 feet. Talk about behemoths! I felt very small and inconsequential; my life but a momentary breath in comparison. The forest’s gauzy shafts of light, swirls of purple shadows, melodious songs of birds, earthy herbal fragrances, and gurgling sounds of streams all intermingled to create an ethereal effect. Indeed, this is a natural cathedral, serene and solemn, commanding a hushed respect. These redwoods have stood for eons of time, against the forces of natural disasters, man and change. Sadly, they are the lone survivors of their species, now protected from the chaos and clamor of the outside world. I gratefully received the gifts of peace and tranquility they offered. And I came away with a few lessons from these wise old trees.

Ranger Lucy in uniform standing with me and my guide dog

Ranger Lucy, Muir Woods

Ranger Lucy from the Muir Woods park service gave a tree talk to visitors. She had 5 lessons we can learn from the redwoods:

  1. Stand Tall and Proud– redwoods are the tallest living thing on earth. They have survived fires, droughts and other hardships. They bear scars and cracks which testify to their struggle to live. Wear your scars of survivorship proudly and stand with dignity.
  2. Live in a “Cool” Place-redwoods grow best in the cool temperatures of the fog belt in California. They flourish in this moist environment. Find your special place in the world where you can thrive.
  3. Support Your Community-redwoods have a disproportionately shallow root system for their size. Their roots extend widely to tangle with other near-by trees in order to anchor themselves securely. Reach out to your community to establish connections with others.
  4. Grow a Thick Skin-redwoods have very thick, spongy and fibrous bark, rich in tannic acid which makes it resistant to fire, insects, and fungi. Allow your skin to thicken so you can resist the assaults of life.
  5. Surround Yourself with Family-redwoods have the ability to reproduce by sprouting burls and forming tightly grouped “family circles,” giving them a survival advantage. Stay close to family so they can fortify and strengthen you.

I am always looking for what nature can teach me. We live in such an exquisitely designed and spectacularly intelligent world. When we stop to observe and listen, we learn great secrets and truths. These sacred experiences teach us to respect and appreciate the beauty and gifts of the Earth.

A group of trees forming a family circle

Cathedral Grove, a family circle of redwoods

            

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

John Muir

 

Traveling Blind: A Sensory Experience

 

Yosemite National Park-El Capitan

Yosemite National Park-El Capitan

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

Saint Augustine

My husband and I just returned from a trip to California. We visited Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Muir Woods, Carmel, and Sonoma Valley. He is an excellent vacation planner and travel companion! This was one of my favorite trips with such a variety of experiences and adventures: hiking among the giant Sequoia, picnicking and wine-tasting in lush wine country, riding the rickety trolley car, shopping in the “hippie” district in the city, lunching on dim sum in colorful China Town, sipping tea in the peaceful Japanese gardens, meandering in the serenity of Cathedral Grove among the regal Redwoods, walking the dog-friendly beaches with my guide dog Sophie, breathing in the fresh, crisp air on the Coastal Trail, feasting on local seafood and wines…ahhh…I am still basking in the glow of the sweet sensory memories of it all!                                                                                                                        

Matanzas Creek Winery-Sonoma Valley

Matanzas Creek Winery-Sonoma Valley

                                                         

A couple and guide dog at the base of a giant Sequoia tree

The Mighty Sequoia Tree

 

Where ever you go, go with all your heart.

Confucius

As I was packing, I marveled at how little I needed in my suitcase. A mere 46 lbs. of worldly trappings and accoutrements to survive a twelve day trip was all I required. I have learned to keep it simple. That way, there is less to organize, keep track of, and haul around! I love this sense of freedom from material things and it creates room in my soul to take in the new experiences. It is enlightening to consider what we can live without and how freeing it can be to shed extra baggage.

Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the past when I have traveled as a visually impaired person, I often experienced overwhelming fatigue, anxiety, and even irritability while trying to adjust to new surroundings. This would cause stress  which took away from the ability to enjoy the adventure. This trip was different somehow. I have learned to relax and accept my limitations. I try to pace myself, yet challenge myself at the same time so as not to miss a worthwhile attraction. For instance, we chose to take a two-mile “moderate” hike to Glacier Point in Yosemite. It took us a few hours to painstakingly navigate a rocky course to reach a spectacular summit view. My guide dog was an amazing and attentive partner as she moved me through the obstacles of rocks, logs, and roots. My husband patiently gave me verbal instructions and a steady arm when needed. It took teamwork and concentration as the three of us plugged along the path. The payoff was arriving at the highest point in Yosemite, surrounded by unmatched grandeur; sparkling granite cliffs, terraced waterfalls, and a feeling of infinite openness and space. It was exhilarating and energizing! And the satisfaction of accomplishment spurred me onward. As visually impaired people, we sometimes have to find a different way to do things and take our time-but what joy there is in success and the experience.   

Ft. Funston Beach

Ft. Funston Beach

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

Mary Ritter Beard

From the moment we arrived in California, I sensed the differences. The air was cool and crisp with a woodsy herbal scent. The birds sang different songs. Trees have unique silhouettes and shades of color. The sky was bigger and bluer than in Georgia. Flowers seem to be more bold and varied. There are ever-present views and briny smells of the ocean. Foods and people from all parts of the world abound. Travel is about appreciating the differences and variety which the world has to offer. I may not “see” all the sights, but I can employ all of my senses to enrich my experience and celebrate the joys of travel. It is about being there and “being present.”

Pleasure is the flower that passes; remembrance, the lasting perfume.

Jean de Boufflers

A special benefit of this trip was the opportunity to truly enjoy the company of my husband. With the distractions of home, work, and other responsibilities left behind, we were able to tune in to each other fully and refresh ourselves together. Long walks and talks on beautiful beaches can rejuvenate the mind, body and soul. I discovered that each day I could not wait to get up and going, as it meant more time with Kevin. His undivided attention was luxurious and the lazy days together felt extravagant. I wanted to make the most of “him and me” time. So travel is also about the joy of being with your loved ones. All the adventures, sights and experiences are richer when shared and the memories sweeter when made together.