The Island Dolphin Care Story

Blog No Comments

By Deena Hoagland

Make Room for Joy at Island Dolphin Care

When I found myself the parent of a paralyzed and visually impaired son, I too felt paralyzed. I discovered a way to not only help my son Joe but also help other families in similar circumstances.

In 1986, my son, Joe was born with a rare, life-threatening heart condition; he suffered a massive stroke during the third of five open-heart surgeries. Our family had recently moved to Key Largo, Florida from Colorado where the high altitude was compromising Joe’s health. We left our lives and friends behind in an effort to save Joe. Starting a new life in Key Largo was lonely and overwhelming. Between doctor and therapy appointments there was little time left for family fun. Finding a place for Joe to play and just “be a kid” was difficult, especially since the stroke had robbed him of his independence and thus his favorite activity, swimming. I was desperate to find fun for Joe. One day I stumbled upon a local education and research facility where people could swim with dolphins. A special friendship was immediately formed between Joe and a wondrous dolphin named Fonzie. As a therapist I already had the educational background and experience needed. With Joe’s dolphin friend in mind, I came up with many ideas to help Joe. During his ‘traditional’ therapy appointments Joe was resistant, negative and often refused to comply with requests from therapists. Once with Fonzie, Joe’s eyes lit up and he giggled, leading me to the idea of using Fonzie (his new best friend) to encourage him to move his fragile body.

Over the course of the next year, Fonzie & Joe’s friendship grew stronger. I utilized the playful interactions between Joe and Fonzie as a motivator to strengthen Joe, both physically and emotionally. Joe wanted to spend as much time as he could with his new dolphin friend. He then began to work extra hard in his other therapies with the hope of someday swimming with Fonzie. Approximately two years after Joe’s first dolphin encounter, he independently slid into the water and swam with his dolphin friend, Fonzie. Today, Joe is an adult with few remaining signs of the stroke. I theorized that if the dolphins could motivate and encourage Joe, they might do the same for other children and families. I was determined to find out if I was right! Everyone in our family shared the dream of helping others like ourselves; and together we became the founders of Island Dolphin Care. A special place for special people!

Would you like to know the full story of my family and the beginnings of Island Dolphin Care? You will find the whole story outlined in my book on Amazon – Breaths that Count by Deena Hoagland.

About Island Dolphin Care:

Island Dolphin Care became a 501(c)3 not-for profit organization in 1997.

Through our family’s personal experiences with Joe, we understood the unique path that parents of children with special needs travel. We hoped that families arriving to IDC programs would feel accepted and understood, having found a place where everyone in the family could play and learn together!

It has been a labor of love and with the generosity of others through donations we have built what we have termed “the Joy Factory!”

The Island Dolphin Care Center is a fully accessible therapy and learning facility that includes four therapy rooms, provides informational workshops and support groups, state of the art assistive technology, interactive exhibits and aquariums, as well as a library & family resource center for parents. The 5,000 sq.ft. center of learning and fun also provides enhanced marine science education programs throughout the year.

IDC employs therapists with a background in special education, recreation therapy & social work. The skilled therapists at Island Dolphin Care use traditional therapy methods while inside the center. The motivation and excitement of being in the water with our dolphins & therapists create a learning atmosphere unlike any other! Island Dolphin Care strives to build self-esteem and confidence for all participants. The dolphins provide unconditional motivation and support to individuals with various disabilities. Visitors leave with memories that last a lifetime.

Families attend programs for one to three weeks at a time. IDC is proud of the special family experience it provides. IDC’s therapy process includes everyone!

Scholarships to attend the five-day program are available to families in financial need. Scholarships are provided based on availability of funding. Families must apply. Reservations are required for all programs. Programs are still available for 2015!

For more information see Island Dolphin Care’s website at or call 305-451-5884.

Deena Hoagland

“Every child deserves the opportunity to participate in activities that will enhance their emotional and physical well-being through joyful experiences….Without judgment, without fear, they (dolphins) interact and accept you as something wonderful”

– Deena Hoagland

What do families say about IDC?

A quote from a father of a participant:

“Upon arriving on Monday morning until our departure your staff could not do enough for us. They gave not only their time and expertise but their love and caring, Randy was comfortable from the first hello and I was able to relax and not worry whether he was in good hands and were all his needs being met. I didn’t realize how much I needed that.”

“The bottom line for my family is that you were able to get Randy to not only talk in complete sentences but give him an experience he will fondly remember for many years come.”

Other Participant Photos:


Logan with therapist, 2015


Michelle with therapist, 2015

Jack with Therapist, 2015

Jack with Therapist, 2015

No Responses to “The Island Dolphin Care Story”

Leave a Reply

Free WordPress Themes

WordPress Themes