Southeast Student Makes a Splash at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo


Southeast Missouri State University student Kayla Chapman refers to dolphins as co-workers at her six week recreational therapy internship at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Florida.

Chapman, a senior majoring in recreation and parks administration from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, applied for the internship to gain a unique experience in animal assisted therapy.

“After I took the recreational therapy class at Southeast and did a practicum at a horse therapy ranch, I fell in love with recreational therapy and animal assisted therapy,” Chapman said. “I researched other animal-assisted therapy internships online and Island Dolphin Care came up. After doing a lot more research on the facility, and watching a lot of their videos, I knew this is the internship I wanted to do.”

Island Dolphin Care is a non-profit organization which offers dolphin-assisted therapy. Trained and licensed therapists assist participants and their families with a variety of health and disabling conditions during a five-day program. Individualized programs are provided both in the warm ocean waters with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, and on land in therapy rooms. The organization offers day camps on Fridays for local non-profits that work with people with disabilities, veterans and those who have suffered abuse.

The clients and their families partake in a classroom and swim session. Each session is catered to what the child’s needs or parent goals are for their child.

Her daily responsibilities focus on preparing for and participating in each day’s therapy sessions with the facility’s client and dolphins, including takings photos and notes and interacting with clients.

The photos she takes during every classroom and water session allow the facility’s therapists to review their clients and work to assess clients’ interactions, behaviors and create future session activities and goals. The photos are also available to the clients and their families to memorialize their dolphin encounters. Chapman also takes notes at each session, and provides encouragement to the clients throughout their visit.

“I’ve never worked with the variety of disabilities before doing this internship and I’m honestly so surprised at how much I’ve connected with them,” Chapman said. “It’s truly amazing to see a child improve through the week both through the classroom session and the swim sessions.”

The classroom session uses art and music therapy to help the child reach their goals. Examples of those goals are to improve cognitive function and fine motor skills, build self-esteem, calm down anxiety, strengthen their body, improve social skills, improve communication skills and encourage focus/attention span.

Activities offered during the swim session includes rubbing the dolphin’s belly, blowing bubbles, singing with the dolphin, belly rides, dorsal fin rides, pole jumps and throwing a ball.

“Seeing children that don’t smile or talk the first classroom session get in the water and let out a big laugh when the dolphin splashes them is so amazing,” Chapman said.

She said the organization allows families to feel welcome by providing an accessible facility that offers an exceptional learning experience and most importantly, fun.

“What I love most about this program is that they involved the families in the child’s therapy,” she said. “This not only helps the child reach their goals, but it helps the parents to see that their child can achieve in life, and it teaches their siblings how to play with each other. The family has somewhere where they feel welcomed and not judged.”

Chapman says her favorite moments are when she connects with clients.

The first family she was assigned to work with had a child with cerebral palsy, and though she was a little nervous on her first assignment, that quickly faded away and she connected with the client immediately.

“When we painted, she always picked the color red. I told her, “Oh my gosh, you’re a rock star when you paint!’ and she chimed back with “Yeah, we’re both red paint rockstars!” Chapman said.

While helping her during their first swim session, Chapman had built a strong enough relationship with the client to encourage her to accomplish her goal of using her left hand more because she was a “red-paint rockstar.”

“She gave me the biggest smile and agreed to use her left hand more! She also would always call me ‘Kayla the best photographer,’ and asked for a picture with me her last day,” Chapman said. “Saying goodbye to her was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.”

Chapman hopes her experiences at Island Dolphin Care will expand her knowledge about the benefits of animal assisted therapy and non-profit organizations.

“I’m learning about the struggles of running a non-profit organization, how expensive it is to take care of animals, all the different disabilities, how much patience it takes to be a recreational therapist, and how demanding a job like this is,” Chapman said.

She intends to pedal her experience and passion for animal assisted therapy into furthering her education in either recreational therapy or occupational therapy.