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A guiding light Bronagh’s

The First Lady’s volunteer work for the blind is helping to change lives.

Bronagh Key and her labrador 'Imogen'

Bronagh Key admits that she’s a cat person at heart. She was brought up with them, and the Key family pet is a 12-year-old moggie called Moonbeam.

But if anything were to sway Prime Minister John Key’s wife to change her mind and choose dogs as her pet of preference, it would be the adorable puppies she meets during her work for the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind.

Of course the gorgeous bundles of fur at the RNZFB Guide Dog Services in Auckland aren’t pets – after rigorous training they will be working guide dogs, shouldering the huge responsibility of giving blind people independence.

But cat lover or not, Bronagh can’t help wanting to cuddle dogs like Imogen, the impeccably-behaved labrador Bronagh is keeping a close eye on as she pays one of her regular visits to Guide Dog Services.

“I’m a lot more comfortable with dogs than I used to be,” says Bronagh, as she throws a toy for Imogen to fetch. “These dogs are so well-trained!”.

The RNZFB is the main cause Bronagh supports, as she feels the work they do is vital. “I really believe in what they are doing,” she says.

Bronagh does far more for the RNZFB than simply turning up to events or publicising their good work. She also pops into their Auckland offices whenever she can to help out with everything from opening mail to preparing information packs. “I’m the dogsbody, so to speak,” she laughs. “I’m the sort of person who prefers to be a bit under the radar. I feel really comfortable about going in when ever they are busy and doing whatever I can to help.”

She has recently been sorting through donations, and says it has been touching to see how generous people can be. Even if they can only manage small amounts – such as the person who sent in a cheque for $2, with an apology that they couldn’t afford more – the foundation is grateful for everything it receives, as it couldn’t provide the services without donations.

“It costs a lot of money to train a guide dog and people think it is funded by the government, but it isn’t,” Bronagh says. “They need all the help they can get.”

And yes, people do ask if she could have a quiet word in husband John’s ear, but unfortunately it’s not that simple.

Still, the Key family do sponsor four guide dog puppies through the Red Puppy scheme. But being puppy walkers is not an option for the family, as they would have to take the dog with them everywhere they go.

“It could be tricky taking one to a state dinner,” smiles Bronagh. So, instead, she does her bit wherever she can. She’ll even be out collecting for Red Puppy Appeal later this week and also for Blind Week in October. Occasionally people do a double take when they realise who she is, but Bronagh doesn’t get recognised often because, as she points out, “I’m out of context”.

Volunteering for the RNZFB means Bronagh’s knowledgeable about what they do, and she enjoys watching guide dog training. “What they can do is incredible,” she says.

Bronagh has also been taken on a blindfolded walk through the busy Auckland suburb of Newmarket by the foundation’s access manager Chris Orr, who is blind himself.

“You feel so vulnerable. It makes you realise that everyday things are really difficult, and it also makes you understand what an amazing difference it can make, having a guide dog.”

The Red Puppy Appeal, which raises money to train puppies to become expert guide dogs, is being held on April 5 and 6. To support the appeal, go to: redpuppy.org.nz

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