A new group of hopeful parents and excited children arrived at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Fla. today, March 18. The nonprofit organization greets new families each Monday morning from March through the end of the summer.
The program was started over 20 years ago by Deena Hoagland. Deena's 3-year-old son, Joe, was paralyzed on his left side after a stroke. When he wasn't responding to traditional treatments, his mother, a social worker, therapist and teacher, decided to take matters into her own hands. She started calling places with a pool because her instincts told her water would be beneficial.
A "swim with the dolphins" tourist attraction in Key Largo agreed to let her use their pool. She watched in amazement as Joe began to bloom while interacting with a dolphin there on their very first visit.
Joe made a remarkable recovery with the help of his dolphin friend, Fonzie, and Deena was inspired to create a facility to bring the same magic to other children. Island Dolphin Care has been working with children with a wide range of physical, emotional and neurological disabilities since 1990. They also work with adults, including veterans with PTSD.
Read more about the family and the creation of the program in Deena's book "Breaths that Count."
My daughter attended the dolphin therapy program last week. She is diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety and insomnia as a result of early trauma she suffered before we adopted her. She also struggles with some sensory issues.
The staff at Island Dolphin Care was warm, friendly, helpful and professional from my first email contact inquiring about the program all the way through saying goodbye when it was time for us to leave after a wonderful week. My daughter was assigned a therapist who worked with her one-on-one each day. The therapist knew her case thoroughly as a result of the many pages of documentation collected during the application process. My daughter’s program was designed specifically for her. She also had two interns, a dolphin trainer and her very own dolphin, Lotus, dedicated to her all week while we were there.
The program is split between art and swimming with the dolphins. My daughter’s progress was amazing during the five day program – and it didn’t feel like therapy or work to her at all. She had a blast!
She and her dolphin pal, Lotus, bonded instantly. She’s a very shy child, but had no trouble speaking up to ask the trainer permission to play with Lotus. I loved watching her confidence and self esteem soar.
She opened up more to the team in just a few days than she ever has with any other therapist. In fact, she’s had multiple therapists dismiss her case because she wasn’t willing or able to reveal basic information such as her favorite color after months of work. However, she gladly chatted away about her past, current life and feelings to the Island Dolphin Care team.
She had zero meltdowns, though we were away from home and her father – both big triggers – the whole time we were gone. She also slept through the night all week.
I knew getting her in a wetsuit was going to be a challenge because of her sensory issues. Bathing suit shopping with her is a nightmare because she hates having clothing against her skin. She started the week in tears because she was convinced the size large wetsuit and life vest were too small and hurting her.
Her team gently encouraged her to try a smaller size each day and by Thursday she had gone from a large to an extra small! She was amazed at how much warmer she felt in the water once she got in the right size.
One of the best parts about Island Dolphin Care is that they understood why those were huge accomplishments for my daughter and were thrilled to celebrate with our family.
It was a week we will never forget – and we hope to return next year!