PSS Spring '11

Partners Against Crime

Celeste Lopes '80 and her guide dog navigate the streets of NYC

by Dominic Moore '05 and Catherine Williams

Lopes, who is visually-impaired, has been teamed
with guide dogs for more than 30 years. "It's like
you can read each other's' minds. If the partnership
is a good one, it's intuitive and anticipatory. But it
also takes a huge amount of trust."

He knows upwards of 180 words and understands complex concepts like 'find.' Nine times out of 10, he can find the nearest Starbucks or an empty seat on a subway. He works long hours every day, commuting from Long Island to Brooklyn. And he's also, Celeste Lopes '80 says affectionately, "a bit of a spoiled brat."

The spoiled brat in question is an 80-pound Labrador retriever, Lopes' guide dog who pilots her through the crowded streets of New York City. The dog, whose name she won't reveal so that strangers can't distract him, is her sixth. Lopes, who is visually-impaired, has been teamed with guide dogs for more than 30 years.

"It's like you can read each other's' minds," she explains. "If the partnership is a good one, it's intuitive and anticipatory. But it also takes a huge amount of trust."

A Deputy Bureau Chief of the Rackets Division in the King's County District Attorney's Office, Lopes has been a prosecuting attorney since 1983. She previously served as a senior assistant district attorney in the Major Frauds Bureau, where she supervised 15 assistant district attorneys. Her canine partner helps her navigate offices, courtrooms and judges' chambers with ease. "If the partnership is working correctly, it becomes invisible to the people around me, including colleagues and witnesses," she says. It's a relationship that requires a heroic investment from both parties. "It can take as long as 18 months to partner with a dog," Lopes says, "and it's a process more difficult than anyone can imagine."

A guide dog will start attending rigorous training classes at about 12 months of age. Then, anywhere from 7-12 months after that, the newlytrained dog will be given to a handler like Lopes. The next year and a half are a grueling time, both physically and emotionally, as the two learn to live and work together. At the same time, Lopes is saying goodbye to an older animal on the way to retirement.

"I've been lucky that all of my dogs have either been able to stay with me after retirement or have gone on to homes with friends or coworkers," she says. "Despite that, I'll often spend the last month with my old dog crying while I'm also welcoming a young, bouncy, overlyrambunctious new presence into my life."

Lopes was a highly active member of the Colleges' community, working for four years at the student-run coffee house Amaranth, spinning records at WEOS and becoming one of the founding members of Newman Club. "At Hobart and William Smith, I became confident in going down new roads and trying new things," she remembers. "I learned how important it is to stand up for what you believe in."

A mathematics major, Lopes had a talent and passion for law and its strict logic. There were many hurdles to overcome, especially, she says, in the days before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but Lopes says she found the HWS culture of optimism to be invigorating. Supportive faculty encouraged her through each challenge, giving her a life-long appreciation for "optimism, confidence and a positive attitude." Instead of hearing why the visually-impaired couldn't succeed in the field of law, faculty told her "I believe in you and this will work." At the Colleges, Lopes remembers fondly, "I never heard 'I can't' or 'we won't.'"

Can't and won't aren't in Lopes' vocabulary. In addition to a successful career, she rides horses and is involved in Ski for Light, a nonprofit that teaches visually- and mobility-impaired adults how to cross-country ski. She is the Vice Chair of the National Board of Learning Ally, an organization that records texts for the visually impaired. She's also a member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Guide Dog Foundation. She has testified before the Congressional appropriations committee, advocated for equal access for people who are blind and has appeared in public service announcements distributed by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, and the Department of Justice. She received her law degree from Boston College and was given the William Smith Alumnae Achievement Award in 2003.

"What matters to me is that I'm really helping people through my job," Lopes explains. "I'm aiding victims of crimes and, I hope, making society a bit more kind and gentle. My guide dog allows me to do this."


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