Disabled Travel: Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo ‘Creates Joy’

    By Janet K. Keeler

    There’s something about dolphins that people can’t resist. We ooh and ahh when they leap from the water and credit them for calming our nerves when we spy them gliding on the water.  Dolphins have long brought a sense of serenity to our chaotic world.

    Their power is nothing new. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed dolphins carried messages from the gods. The Hindu goddess Ganga relies on a dolphin escort. To some Native American tribes, the dolphin is a sacred spirit animal.

    These majestic mammals have a lot to live up to. They appear to fulfill their promise at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo by working with special needs children and wounded veterans through various programs, including weeklong camps.

    Island Dolphin Care is a not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to helping adults, children and families who are dealing with developmental and physical disabilities, emotional challenges and critical, chronic or terminal illness.

    The facility is just a few miles from John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park. Island Dolphin Care is worth a stop for travelers heading toward Key West. Anyone can check out the special exhibits and peruse the bookstore, all of them accessible to people using wheelchairs or walkers.

    The grounds of the facility are lush, thanks to the balmy weather and plentiful summer rain of South Florida. The perpetual warm weather makes Island Dolphin Care attractive for visitors year-round. People have come from all over the world to take part in the weeklong camps that run March through November. Up to eight families a week can enroll and even family members are welcome to swim with the dolphins during some of the sessions.

    For visitors, daily tours include observation of the dolphins and in-water therapy sessions, a tour of the facility, a visit to the touch tank and eight wheelchair-height aquariums plus educational lectures about dolphins and other marine animals. The tour also includes an explanation of the therapy programs. It’s best to call ahead and ask what is going on at the facility when you want to tour, especially if you would like to observe the in-water therapy sessions.

    Jennifer Gomez and her sister Wendy, of Miami, enjoy getting to know the dolphins at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo with an assist from Recreational Therapist Mallory Parsons. Jennifer, who has Autism, enjoyed this early summer day of Dolphin Therapy.

    Jennifer Gomez and her sister Wendy, of Miami, enjoy getting to know the dolphins at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo with an assist from Recreational Therapist Mallory Parsons. Jennifer, who has Autism, enjoyed this early summer day of Dolphin Therapy.

    - Patrick Farrell for VISIT FLORIDA

    Deena Hoagland, a licensed social worker, created Island Dolphin Care in 1997 after witnessing how interactions with a dolphin named Fonzie helped her son regain movement after he had a stroke at the age of 3. Hoagland stresses that Island Dolphin Care does not cure people but “creates joy” where there has often been despair. Their story has been told through numerous media outlets.

    For many families, attending camp is the first family vacation in which everyone can participate fully, Hoagland says. For a special needs child, sitting on the sidelines is often the reality of group endeavors, but not here.

    “Families meet here and come back the same time every year,” Hoagland said. “They say to us ‘This is our heaven.’ ”

    Island Dolphin Care was refurbished in 2005 and since then has grown its efforts to connect dolphins with special needs children and adults, mostly wounded veterans. For many veterans, the scars of service are not visible but their families and friends see the difference in their personalities when they return to civilian life. Sometimes there is a distance between them that is hard for all to deal with. A moving video shows how intense interaction with the dolphins kick-started a turnaround for some struggling veterans and their families.

    The facility also offers marine education to small groups.

    Get a bite to eat after or before a tour of Island Dolphin Care in a nearby Key Largo restaurants. The Key Largo Fisheries Backyard Café specializes in Florida Keys seafood, including conch and seasonal stone crab. Key lime pie is a necessity when visiting the Keys but a guava rum cheesecake will also give you a sense of place. A ramp provides access for wheelchairs up to the deck that has a view of the boats bobbing in the marina.

    The Pilot House Marina, which opened in 1950, is also welcoming to clients of Island Dolphin Care and any other disabled travelers.  The restaurant serves all manner of local shellfish and seafood, including the much-prized hogfish. Visitors can spend time, too, watching the many boats moored at the marina, and enjoy a tropical drink at the glass bottom bar.

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