Don’t pet Kyla Miller’s Leader Dog.
Especially when Winter’s harnessed for work.
Don’t ask how many fingers you’re holding up, either.
“They want to know what I can see,” Miller said. “I can see a billboard, but probably not what it says. In school, I use glasses with telescopes to see the board.”
Miller, a Southwestern Michigan College communications major who wants to become head writer of her own soap opera, is in her second year of residence-hall living on the Dowagiac campus after reigning as Miss Three Oaks/River Valley 2015.
Preparing for Miss Blossomtime, “I went from not knowing how to curl my hair or do makeup to full-blown stage hair and makeup, how to walk in high heels and speak onstage. It helped me grow into the person I am. I did not win, but remember leaving that night thinking I did. I’m different and okay with that.”
“Grandmas watch soap operas, but so does every man in my family. It’s an interesting form of storytelling. I took Winter to a soap opera convention and met some of the cast of ‘The Young and the Restless.’”
Winter also attended a Taylor Swift concert
“Before I had Winter, I didn’t want to go to college,” Miller said.
“I was scared to leave my house. I feared being judged. I can grocery shop by myself, but take longer. People stare and make comments. Because of my vision loss, my hearing is extremely good. If you want to talk about me, say it to my face. I wasn’t going out for the pageant because people would say, ‘She only won because they felt sorry for her.’ People did say that. I wanted to say, no, I won because I’m very confident.”
Miller, from Sawyer, toured Berrien County middle schools last year.
She addressed fellow students Dec. 13 who see “that blind girl with the dog. Blindness is a spectrum disorder. I’m on the mild end.”
Septo-optic dysplasia means, “My optic nerve is not fully developed. There’s no way my vision can be corrected, nor can it worsen,” Miller said. “If I had an opportunity to correct it, I probably wouldn’t because I’ve spent 20 years this way. I would have to relearn how to live and get rid of my best friend.”
The oldest of three children attended Montessori school until first grade, then Bridgman Public Schools until graduation.
“I went to prom and lived a normal high school experience,” said Miller, though anxiety accompanied visual impairment.
“I was a normal kid, playing with siblings, friends and cousins, roller skating and swimming. But middle school, when sports start, I was not as normal. Anxiety can be powerful and take over your life. I started pulling my hair. I stopped on my own after a year.”
A cheerleader in seventh and eighth grade, when she went for her physical, the doctor asked, “Are you doing that on purpose or are your eyes always funny?”
Her mother, Lori, looked into guide dogs when Miller was 16.
“No way I was traveling to California or New York for a month away from my family,” she said. “We were fortunate to find Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester. They match dogs to your height, weight and pace. I wanted a female Golden Retriever. I can see which way traffic goes, but I will never be able to drive. I drove a lawn mower once — into a tree because they didn’t tell me where the brake was.”
During a week in Rochester in March of junior year, “My instructor blindfolded me, which was terrifying,” she said. “I don’t have enough sight as it is, so when you make it totally dark I panic. She drives around, gives me a GPS and says, ‘Find your way back.’ I was hyperventilating. I thought I would be abducted, then ‘Criminal Minds’ would have to find me. I’m very religious. I prayed. Lo and behold, I found my way.”
“I don’t remember life before Winter,” Miller said. “Our first night at bedtime she put her paw on my hand. Anybody who knows Winter knows she only holds hands with people she loves.”
“Winter goes to work with me. My family owns cancer boutiques that give wigs and breast prosthetics to patients. I’m the receptionist and head of marketing. Cancer patients go through lots, but when they come to the front desk and see this dog, their faces light up.”
The Miller home has two cats, two Chihuahuas and a senior “mutt,” Phoebe, “the only thing Winter is scared of.”
Why is Winter, one of nine black puppies from a Golden Retriever dad and a chocolate Lab mom named for a snowy season?
Winter was the 10th Leader Dog for her “puppy raiser.”
“She named her Winter because she was born in November, they got her around Christmas” and sounded better than Icicle or Ornament.