A day with dolphins increases disability awareness and gives an inside look at what families with special needs want most.
I first witnessed stigmatization of special needs children when I was 10 years old.
One day when my parents were working, my babysitter took my brother and I to Matheson Hammock Park in Miami. There was a special needs summer camp for children with down syndrome at the park on a field trip. My babysitter quietly instructed me not play with those children, she feared that they were dangerous.
Though I obeyed, I felt like what she said wasn’t right. I observed and watched the children from afar and I remember thinking, “These kids are just like me. They might look a little different, but they are just like me.” I didn’t know it at the time, but God used that experience to plant a seed in my heart.
Though probably well-intentioned, my babysitter’s lack of understanding led to a stigmatization of people with disabilities. Sadly, this is not uncommon. We often fear what we do not understand.
For the last 30 years, I have dedicated my life to serving families and children with specials needs. I serve as the Secondary Director for ESE at Calvary Christian Academy where I coordinate support programs
such as academic support coaching, Learning Strategies, Learning Enrichment Lab, and Varying Exceptionalities
. My love for this community has grown my passion to raise awareness.
People with special needs are just like everybody else — they are just like you.
“In 2015-16, the number of students ages 3–21 receiving special education services [in the U.S.] was 6.7 million, or 13 percent of all public school students,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics
. Special education serves children with emotional disturbances, a physical or intellectual disability, developmental delays, or health impairments.
Meaning, the spectrum is wide. A disability can range from mild to severe and assistance is individualized. Most students need a little extra attention and assistance when it comes to their education.
What most people don’t realize about people with disabilities is that they want to feel like they belong to a community, just like anybody else. They want to be involved in community activities, just like anybody else. They want to be treated with dignity, just like anybody else. Though they may need more accommodations than most, people with special needs are just like everybody else — they are just like you.
In May 2019, I brought CCA high school marine biology students to participate in Sonfish Outdoor Adventure Program
— a nonprofit I founded that provides outdoor marine adventures for families with special needs children. Each student was paired with a buddy, a student from Potentia Academy
, a school for students with unique learning needs. There job was simple: observe, interact, and befriend their buddy.
For a moment they forget their limitations and their self esteem grows.
We participated in dolphin therapy, where special needs children and their family members interact with dolphins. The tasks increase in difficulty, and in the end the child is often in the water swimming with dolphins. For a moment they forget their limitations and their self esteem grows.
It’s so important for children with special needs to have opportunities to overcome challenges in a fun and safe environment. Nature
is a great place to facilitate this, especially marine environments. There is research
that shows that water really calms the overactive mind. For a child with ADHD or autism, for example, it has a calming effect; it increases serotonin levels and creates a mood of tranquility.
Just as children with special needs want to be treated like everyone else, their parents want their children to be included in as many social and educational opportunities as any other child.
The CCA students who participated in the dolphin swim at Sonfish stuck with their buddies all day. They participated in an art activity, ate lunch together, enjoyed a touch tank activity, and finally swam with the dolphins alongside their new friend from Potentia. They gained an understanding of how similar we all are. They witnessed first hand how young adults with special needs have the same desires as all human beings.
Through this experience our CCA students learned about empathy and compassion. Most of all, they learned how a person with special needs can contribute to a friendship and the community.
Lourdes Zarro is the Secondary ESE Coordinator at CCA and CEO of Sonfish Outdoor Adventure Program. As a certified Autism Specialist, Lourdes has helped thousands of families meet the special needs of their children. As a parent, she has experienced the joy and pain of having a child with a learning disability. It is her professional goal to provide families with opportunities that stretch their child’s abilities and fulfill their emotional and social needs.