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Archive photo from 1994
some text Fiji native Setareki Macanawai poses with his former hosts, Donna Buckelew-Adams (left) and Michael High (right) on June 19, 2019, at the Red Lobster restaurant in Hixson, Tennessee.

Twenty-six years after coming to Chattanooga on a Rotary Club year-long scholarship to study special education at UTC, and unexpectedly obtaining a seeing eye dog, Fiji native Setareki Macanawai was back in town last week.

It was his first time back in Chattanooga since 1993, and he was visiting his former hosts and showing his wife around the city where he got his guide dog, Dusty.

Macanawai, 55, lost his sight when he was 17 while playing rugby, he said. He learned to get around with a white cane and was initially skeptical about getting a dog. He wasn't sure he could learn to trust a dog, he said at the time.

But when the Chattanooga Lions Club offered to get him a guide dog, he went to Michigan to meet the year-and-a-half-year-old pup who had just finished service training.

The two traveled back to Chattanooga where Macanawai learned to trust Dusty, and Dusty learned Macanawai's class schedule, helping him get across campus quicker and giving him a new sense of independence, Macanawai said.

They quickly became buddies.

"It's a lot of responsibility [owning a dog], but you get more out of it. You get to places quicker, move your way around objects, which you sometimes don't know exist," he said. "A lot of opportunities literally opened up for me."

"I think it's safe to say the dog changed his life a little bit," said Mike High, his sponsor and former professor of engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

High helped Macanawai make travel arrangements with Fiji's department of agriculture and the airline when Macanawai was ready to go home. And veterinarian Kevin Ade made sure Dusty's medical records were all in check.

Macanawai has since gotten his master's degree in education administration and is now the CEO of the Pacific Disability Forum, he said. He's become an advocate for people with disabilities.

Dusty lived to be about 9 years old, and Macanawai hasn't gotten another guide dog.

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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