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Food For All: Special Needs Kids Receive Hope From Dolphins

Sometimes Food For All funds programs that nourish the heart and soul. Island Dolphin Care here does just that by offering unique therapeutic and educational programs primarily for children and adolescents with special needs. The program grew out of the physical and emotional benefits that one 3-year-old, Joe, experienced when he was allowed to swim with dolphins. Joe was born with

KEY LARGO, Fla. — Sometimes Food For All funds programs that nourish the heart and soul.

Island Dolphin Care here does just that by offering unique therapeutic and educational programs primarily for children and adolescents with special needs. The program grew out of the physical and emotional benefits that one 3-year-old, Joe, experienced when he was allowed to swim with dolphins. Joe was born with a rare congenital heart disease, truncus arteriosus, and has undergone five major heart surgeries in the last 22 years. At age 3, he suffered a debilitating stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body and caused vision impairment.

His family moved from Colorado to the Florida Keys seeking a warmer climate for Joe's health. His mother, Deena Hoagland, IDC's founder and director, also sought a way to strengthen Joe's body. He was not responding well to traditional therapy. She discovered Dolphins Plus, a public marine mammal educational facility, which permitted Joe to swim and play with the marine mammals. The therapy sessions and exercise with the dolphins worked wonders for Joe, who bonded with a dolphin named Fonzie. Word spread about how Joe's health improved. Other families with special-needs children began to come to the facility asking for help for their children.

In 1997, after working as a volunteer with Dolphins Plus for seven years, Hoagland — a licensed clinical social worker who has worked in many clinical and educational settings and is also a psychotherapist — purchased Dolphins Plus and founded IDC as a nonprofit to help children with developmental and/or physical disabilities, emotional challenges and critical, chronic or terminal illness.

“We are a joy factory,” Hoagland told SN. “By creating IDC we found a way to laugh again. Dolphins gave me courage and hope for the future, which was different than the medical community provided at the time.”

Just over a decade later, IDC has become a resource center for special-needs children and their families. IDC not only offers in-water therapy swim sessions, but also classroom education, as well as music, physical and massage therapy. It welcomes guests and runs marine education sessions for normal-functioning children. It is a facility of equal access and equal play, said Hoagland.

There are seven full-time people on staff, including two special-education teachers, a marine biologist and a physical therapist. Hoagland, her husband and Joe all work at the facility, which requires $1 million in annual funding.

Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., and Food For All have been very supportive of IDC. Publix has donated $99,000. In addition, through Publix shopper donations to Food For All, the chain has given $135,000 over the past five years. These funds have gone toward funding facility improvements; assisted technical devices for the children, such as Eyegaze computer communication systems for hands-free use of the computer; and food for weekly family picnics, of which IDC spent about $10,000 last year. Not surprisingly, the food for picnics was purchased at Publix stores. “The funding goes back to the pot again. That is a great feeling,” said Hoagland.

Nearly 4,000 people visit and make use of the IDC center each year. This year, IDC hosted injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who spent five days diving and swimming with IDC's six dolphins.

“We really like IDC, because it fits nicely in what we try to do as we expand our mission,” said Denis Zegar, president and chief executive officer of Food For All.

“While Island Dolphin Care may not deal directly with food, it meets our objectives by letting those disadvantaged in one way or another meet their fullest potential and fulfillment in taking care of themselves.”