Visually impaired kids get a chance to swim with dolphins

Katherine Concepcion / News Herald Writer

PANAMA CITY BEACH — A group of visually-impaired teenagers got the unique opportunity to swim with a dolphin at Gulf World Marine Park on Monday.

Breonna Willis, 17, and Chance Jackson, 14, two of the 13 person group and both Tallahassee residents said being up close to a dolphin was a new experience for them.

“At first I was scared, but you never get a chance to [swim with them] so I  got over my fear and I’m glad I did,” said Willis, who wants to major in psychology and become a therapist.

Jackson, who aspires to be a business entrepreneur, has gotten a lot of useful experience by participating in a high school transition summer program at the Lighthouse of the Big Bend. Big Bend brought the group to Gulf World.

“We learn different skills like how to budget money, learning about different jobs, how to dress appropriately,” he said.

Jackson was born with optic nerve hypoplasia, is unable to see out of his left eye and has minimal sight in his right eye. He related his experiences with visual impairment to those of a dolphin using echolocation to maneuver through water. “People with visual impairments can have a heightened sense of everything else, so we can have an idea of how it is for them to not have a sense that we don’t have either, so we have to adapt and they have adapted too,” he said.

The participants were happy about bonding with each other during the last week of the summer program.

“When we’re in a big group like this we’ve got to learn how to get along,  said Willis. “We do bump heads, but we’re like a big family.”

Lighthouse of the Big Bend, a nonprofit agency which provides free outreach and group services to legally blind individuals residing in one of the eleven  Big Bend counties which includes Franklin, Gadsden and Liberty counties. All participants in the high school program are between the ages of 14-20.

“We have a large variety of students we serve,” said Amanda Bernath, teacher of the visually impaired at the Lighthouse of the Big Bend.

Bernath, who is proficient in Braille, was inspired to pursue teaching the visually impaired by chance during her college career. “I decided to do  elementary education as my major and the school sent different representatives  to our education learning dorm, one of them Brailled our names.”

The chance to swim with dolphins during the last week of the summer program was a reward for the hardest working students. “They worked to get points and develop different daily living skills or assisted technology skills,” said  Bernath. “They worked hard for this.”

Although Gulf World offers a daily reservation-only opportunity to swim with dolphins, this was the first time they had hosted an event for a nonprofit benefiting individuals with special needs.

Pam George, marketing director for Gulf World said the experience may lead to reaching out to other organizations for future events.

“The group is wonderful,” said George. “What do you do if you lose your vision? It’s a panic, so I can totally understand why you would need a support  group like this.”