Showing the Way

Blind teacher plans concert to benefit guide-dog group

Rachelle Cotugno takes her black Labrador guide dog, Oriole, outside her home in Amsterdam. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

AMSTERDAM — People ask Rachelle Cotugno, who is blind, why she has photos of her guide dogs on her walls when she can’t see them.

“They’re my family,” she tells them.

“I’m not sure people who are sighted realize the deep relationship between the guide dog and its handler,” Cotugno said. “They’re more than pets.”

Cotugno, a music teacher at St. Mary’s Institute, is so grateful for the guide dogs she has received free from Guiding Eyes for the Blind that she is performing a benefit concert for the Yorktown Heights organization.

“I am able to maneuver independently because I have a guide dog,” Cotugno said. “She’s my eyes.”

Patricia Christopher of Broadalbin is practicing piano under the tutelage of Rachelle Cotugno in Amsterdam. (The Leader-Herald/Eric Retzlaff)

The concert will include poignant songs she’s written about her black Labrador guide dogs — Mandy, Duncan and now Oriole.

A song about Mandy starts this way:

My world was surrounded by night.

It wasn’t easy to get around

What I needed in my life was a light

In you it was all found.

A verse about her second dog, Duncan, who was killed by a pitbull, goes like this:

Everywhere we go, I want the world to know

You guide me carefully, strong and brave.

You stand by me.

You are a gift of love sent to me from above.

Duncan, my friend, our love will never end.

Cotugno, who plays guitar, will be accompanied at the concert by Fran and Mary Moniz. They will perform from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Aug. 13 at Karen’s Produce, 2311 Route 5S. Deanna Nelson, Karen’s Produce owner, will donate part of the proceeds from the sale of produce, food and ice cream. Donations also will be welcome.

Cotugno said it costs Guiding Eyes $50,000 to breed, raise and train each dog, including the 26 days spent training the handler with the dog.

“God’s blessed me,” she said. “I feel compelled to do something for them.”

Cotugno was born premature and blind in one eye, and at 11, she lost the sight in her other eye. She graduated from the former Bishop Scully High School.

She loved music and wanted to be a teacher since high school. She didn’t know how it was possible for a blind person to go to college until her parents read in the Daily News about a blind nun who taught English.

Cotugno then attended the College of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and religion in the days before the benefits of cellphones, iPads and computers. She didn’t know braille then, and learned by listening. Now, she said, “my computer talks to me,” and she has a braille keyboard.

Encouraged by two professors at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, she earned a music education degree. “I felt I had a gift and I could be trained,” she said, but it was up to professors to develop ways to teach her. Cotugno has continued her education beyond that, learning braille, for example, from the Hadley School for the Blind in Illinois.

She also has earned several other education certificates. Currently, she is teaching herself the Irish tin whistle via the Online Academy of Irish Music in Ireland.

Besides teaching music to 3-year-olds through eighth-graders and directing the concerts at St. Mary’s Institute, Cotugno sings and plays guitar, recorder and piano, and tutors outside of school. She is in charge of the contemporary music choir at St. Mary’s Church and has composed five albums.

Cotugno has a teaching assistant in school to help with tasks requiring sight, but she recognizes the students by their voices. That means she knows who’s singing out of tune or goofing off.

She’s traveled to places in the United States and to other countries, sometimes before she had a guide dog. But having a dog makes traveling much easier, she says.

“It’s just a freedom you don’t have without a dog,” Cotugno said.


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