Music lovers are in for a treat. Grammy Award-winning guitar virtuoso Jose Feliciano will perform at the fifth annual Canadian Friends of The Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind (IGDCFB) Evening of Miracles Gala May 22 at the George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts.
Music is a shared common language that knows no borders.
“I love Israel. I think music brings peace and goodwill,” Feliciano said in a telephone interview from his Connecticut home.
Born blind and from humble beginnings in Puerto Rico, Feliciano taught himself to play guitar by listening to records and practising all day.
“At the age of three, I played percussion for my uncle on a tin cracker can, and at the age of four, I had learned the harmonica. I got a lot of enjoyment out of playing music, and as I got older, I learned to play the accordion. I was about nine years old when I became interested in the guitar. Since then, the guitar has been my life.”
For more than two generations, Feliciano has bridged musical styles and influenced countless musicians. He has recorded over 45 gold and platinum records and has received 19 Grammy nominations and nine awards.
Feliciano recalled some memorable moments of his career. “In 1964, RCA Records signed a very young Feliciano, and in 1968, I won two Grammys for Light My Fire. I was on the American charts and I thought, ‘Wow, I have come a long way from those hills in Puerto Rico.’ And then I met my wife, Susan.”
A philanthropist who has visited the guide dog centre in Israel, Feliciano strongly supports the work being done to train guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired.
“I discovered IGDCFB through a friend, Noach Braun, who is the co-founder and director. They have a very special school,” he said.
The centre includes everything from spacious dog runs, whelping kennels and a veterinary clinic, to a fragrance garden and a student centre that has six bedrooms, a lounge, staff rooms, a dining room and a lecture hall. It also hosts events that allow the sighted and the sightless to interact. Privately funded through donations from around the world, the centre has helped hundreds of blind people in Israel lead independent, productive lives by giving them guide dogs free of charge.
“I have had two guide dogs in my life. The first one was a smooth-hair collie and the other was a female Doberman. As I travelled, it got complicated with quarantine laws, but that doesn’t stop me from realizing how valuable they are,” Feliciano said.
The IGDCFB was founded in 1991 with the goal of helping blind and visually impaired Israelis achieve independence and mobility through the use of guide dogs.
While the objective is simple, the near-miraculous work it does and the challenges it faces are complex. Compared to other countries, Israel has a disproportionately high number of blind people – more than 27,000 registered. Many have lost their sight in terrorist attacks, military action or from disease. Only about 500 of these people have a guide dog to assist them. A guide dog requires intensive professional training from birth until it leaves the centre with its partner, after a year and a half. The service life of the dog is approximately 10 years and its total cost is over $25,000.
“As part of the 2014 campaign, included in our mission is the Children’s Integration Program to help blind and visually impaired children and their families. This project is implemented by Eliya, an Israeli organization that provides full-week rehabilitation programs… [for] children up to the age of six,” said Canadian Friends executive director Sara Gabriel.
Feliciano celebrates Passover with family friends. “I enjoy the Jewish culture. I love Jewish food – corned beef and pastrami. My wife makes the best matzah ball soup – and she is not even Jewish.”
Visit www.ca.israelguidedog.org to learn more and purchase tickets for the gala.