“I Wouldn’t change a thing”
Molly Burke turned a devastating event into an opportunity to help others, building a rich life as a motivational speaker, YouTube personality, and commercial star, thanks to an indomitable spirit—and some terrific guide dogs
When Molly Burke heads out with Gallop, a five-year-old black Lab and Bernese Mountain Dog mix, many people think that the pretty, petite brunette is training a service or medical alert dog.
After chatting with the 24-year-old for a few minutes, people are usually surprised to learn that Gallop is her service dog, and that Molly is blind.
“I don’t look like what most people think blind people look like,” says Molly, who makes eye contact when she speaks, and has perfect posture and a confident stride.
She doesn’t act like it, either. She has a favourite colour (purple) and loves makeup, fashion, and tattoos. She keeps physically fit with downhill skiing, suspension yoga, and pilates. She’s the girl next door, but she’s also overcome many hardships in her young life, and has a way of sharing her experiences that makes others feel not so alone, no matter what they are facing.
Unsurprisingly, Molly is a passionate guide dog advocate. More surprising perhaps is that, though just 24, she is a riveting speaker on subjects such as overcoming adversity, bullying, and embracing diversity, a talent she has leveraged to build a successful career as a sought-after motivational speaker for audiences as large as 20,000 people, ranging from middle-school students to CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.
You may even recognize Molly as the star of a currently airing Dove body wash television commercial. Certainly, she’s well known to her nearly 200,000 YouTube channel subscribers who eagerly tune in twice a week to watch her expound on topics ranging from bringing a guide dog on an airplane, to how blind people pick up their guide dogs’ poop, to how she does her makeup—all with her typical humour and candour.
“I’m not perfect, but I’m open and honest and I’m a work in progress,” she says. “A lot of speakers in the industry talk about their successes but not their failures. I think failures are what teach us the most. I share the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“I think when you first hear my story—I went blind at 14, lost my friends, and was bullied and became suicidal—it all sounds very dramatic,” she says. “But my story is about overcoming challenge. We all have to overcome challenges in life and some of us have to continuously overcome challenge.”
Diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare degenerative retinal disease at the age of four, Molly grew up in Oakville, Ontario where she lived with her older brother Brady and their parents. They remain close (her mother Niamh is Molly’s full-time executive assistant and her father Peter handles all the administration for her company, Molly Burke Inc.). In kindergarten, she began learning braille, yet did her best to carry on as normal. But as her vision went away, so did her friends.
Molly, who managed to get around fairly well, was accused of faking vision problems for attention. She was tormented by bullies; a school guidance counsellor even told her she’d brought the bullying onto herself. On top of her vision loss, she struggled with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
By 14, Molly had lost her vision to what she has now—some light and shadow.
She’d transferred to a school for the blind for Grade 9, but the bullying continued. By this time, she’d learned to stand up for herself, and switched back to a sighted school for Grade 11.
“I went to be able to gain a lot of skills that I needed in life,” she says. “But it wasn’t reality. In reality, not every other person is blind, not everything is in enlarged print and not every person is specially trained to work with you. I knew that if I was going to be successful in society, I had to go into the real world.”
It was during these difficult years that she got her first guide dog, a Lab-Bernese Mountain Dog cross, Gypsy, from the Mira Foundation just outside of Montreal, Quebec.
Many people mistakenly believe that those who are visually impaired automatically get a guide dog. It’s not the case. Before receiving a dog, Molly first had to live at the school to undergo rigorous testing and training to prove that she could care for both herself and a guide dog.
“My first dog opened up a door to this new life,” she says. “To me, it’s not just a dog, but a lifeline and a tool. I have to trust this dog with my life. We’re crossing four lanes of rush-hour traffic together,” she says.
Unfortunately, the thing that all guide dog users need to accept is that their dog is eventually going to die, and that they will have to get another one, Molly says.
When Gypsy died unexpectedly during surgery in 2014, a devastated Molly didn’t leave her house for two weeks.
“It was really difficult,” says Molly. “Gypsy was the one constant in my life. She was there for my first boyfriend, my first heartbreak. She was there when I graduated high school. She was my prom date. She moved out with me when I got my first apartment. Losing her was like closing a big chapter in my life. It was so painful.”
Without a guide, Molly eventually picked up her cane, which she used until she got Gallop from the Mira Foundation two and a half months later. That time without a guide dog reinforced what Molly already knew – that she is very much a guide dog user.
I think when you first hear my story—I went blind at 14, lost my friends, and was bullied and became suicidal—it all sounds very dramatic,” she says. “But my story is about overcoming challenge. We all have to overcome challenges in life.
While saying goodbye to any animal is hard, there is no comparison between losing a pet and a guide dog, says Molly.
“It’s so hard for me when people say they understand because they lost a family pet,” says Molly. (The Burkes’ 15-year-old Polish Lowland Sheepdog, Rory, passed away recently, which Molly says is sad, but maintains is not the same.) “[A guide dog] is a 24/7 companion and a lifeline. Gypsy and Gallop are a part of me. They assist me in basic everyday tasks. I don’t view them as separate. To me, they’re like a wheelchair to someone who can’t walk or a limb to someone who is an amputee.”
Gallop, who Molly calls “the perfect dog for me,” has travelled with her all over North America and to Ireland for her speaking engagements—“it was so much work getting him there,” she says. “There was so much paperwork we had to get done in advance, but he loved it!” She opts to leave Gallop at home when she heads to countries like Kenya. “Safety is a priority for me,” she says. “I didn’t know how he would react.”
The only place she’s had trouble with access for Gallop is New York City (which she frequents) due to the high population of fake service dogs. To the dismay of the guide dog community, websites dedicated to the sales of fake guide dog gear have been popping up over the last several years.
“It’s a work in progress to raise awareness for this issue,” says Molly. “People who use fake service dogs don’t understand. They think it’s an easy way to get to bring their pets everywhere, but there are real implications for our community and it causes a lot of issues that people don’t realize. Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes and you can’t always tell who needs a service dog,” she says. “Mainstream media perpetuates what disabilities look like. We don’t look a certain way or fit into a certain box.”
Another misconception Molly wants to dispel is about guide dogs being enslaved by their users.
“Our dogs love to work and they get excited when they see the harness,” says Molly. “They get exercise, lots of stimulation, and get to spend the entire day with the person they love the most. It gives them purpose.”
Some dogs aren’t meant to be working dogs, says Molly. As a result, not every dog trained to be a guide works in the field, and some animals are retired after only a couple of months.
When Molly is at home, Gallop gets plenty of downtime and enjoys sleeping on the couch and playing at the dog park.
With the help of her guide dogs, Molly has come a long way from the depression and suicidal thoughts that marked her earlier years coming to terms with her vision loss. These days, she’s loving life and working towards her goal—to see bullying end, to reduce stigmas around mental health and to see equal treatment for people with disabilities. And this past December, Molly fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to Los Angeles—with Gallop, of course.
There have been scientific advances that could reverse vision loss, including stem cell therapy and robotic replacement, but Molly says that a cure isn’t something she’s personally interested in.
“I’ve adapted to this life,” she says. “It’s hard for people to understand, but I’ve adjusted and I’m happy. Going back would be a huge adjustment and I would have to learn life all over again. I’m content and proud of who I am and I wouldn’t change a thing.”