JR’s mother had been infected with the Rubella virus while pregnant with him, causing his left eye to be totally blind at birth. At three months old, his right eye was able to be saved through surgery; providing him with minimal vision. "I always enjoyed sketching and doodling as a child, said JR. "I attended a regular public school and in class I was never able to see the notes the teacher wrote on the board, so I would usually copy them during lunch break, where I was inches away from the board. I started sketching on my paper and pretended I was taking notes like the other students during class so I wouldn’t stand out – I guess that helped my path of becoming an artist."
JR later attended The Art Institute and Academy of Arts in San Francisco, where he majored in graphic design. He is more of graphic illustrator now, with a passion for typography and visual development through storytelling. "I might be visually impaired, but my imagination and storytelling is very much alive," he said. "I draw on paper where my eye is inches away from where I can literally kiss my artwork. Being a digital artist helps because anything can be zoomed in using a computer. I’m inspired by experiences and what I’m surrounded by - I just love to tell stories through illustrations."
While being an artist was a cathartic outlet for JR, he was always searching for something more when it came to his mobility and independence. "I’ve been blessed with great family and friends whom I could always count on to help me get around, but I really wanted to gain my independence," he said. "The cane helped, but I didn't like the stigma I felt with it. After reading examples of how a guide dog team works, that’s when I knew that was the missing piece."
JR came to GDB in January 2015 and said he fondly remembers Dog Day. "Griff was dropped off in my room and that’s when I first saw his energetic and affectionate personality – he jumped and went in for a hug the first time he saw me, that is when I knew we were a perfect match. I missed out getting excited to get my license for the first time and being able to drive a car, but I figure that moment of strolling with my guide at first must be the same. Full of joyous anxiousness!"
Over the course of the two-week training, JR worked primarily with GDB Master Licensed Guide Dog Instructor Paolo Pompanin. "Paolo, was just phenomenal," he said. "He had so much knowledge and patience that helped Griff and me succeed. What I admire most about him and the rest of the team of instructors in my class was the relationship that was built. As class went on it felt like we were all becoming friends that got comfortable with each other through humor. That made learning and being in class a lot of fun. I really bonded with my classmates and gained wisdom from all of them."
JR said that having Griff has brought so much joy into his life, that sometimes the best ways to express those emotions are through illustrations. Currently a freelance designer and illustrator, he said that all of his social media handle names are URBSTERS (Urban Monsters). "I had a hard time showing my personality when I was younger, because everyone would notice first how my eyes looked," he said. "This is why I love drawing monsters that are bubbly and cute, because normally everyone would just judge them as monster first before getting to know who they really are. I just hope people can see my personality before noticing my disability – Griff and my artwork has been a bridge to that."