Finding therapy on the open water

From a small marina in Coconut Grove, sailboats, kayaks and other watercraft take on the waters of Biscayne Bay. On the edge of the farthest dock, a couple of small wheelchairs covered with colorful beach towels sit without their owners in sight.

One of the chairs — the purple one with polka dots — belongs to Gerald Garcia, 12.

Although he is unable to walk and has limited upper body mobility, Gerald is used to leaving his wheelchair behind as he and others are lifted by camp counselors and peers into sailboats and kayaks every day.

School’s out, the South Florida heat is on, and being in the water is what their summer camp is all about.

Shake-A-Leg Miami is a boating center that serves individuals with all abilities year-round. During the summer, it hosts children and teens looking to spend their time in the water.

“The activities we have here include a whole bunch of water-based activities — kayaking, stand-up paddling, sailing on keelboats, sailing on Hobie cats and other dinghies,” said Harry Horgan, who founded Shake-A-Leg in 1990. “There’s swimming, seagrass walks and environmental education.”

It’s a tall order that hundreds of giddy campers and teen mentors work to fill every day.

As they are dropped off starting at 8:30 a.m., a closer look reveals they are a mixed group — some run in, some roll in, some limp.

Most of the campers are not disabled, but still, efforts are made so everyone feels included. Ramps are put in place, additional hands are deployed and boats are accommodated for wheelchairs.

“Technology is making life so much more accessible to people, but for kids with disabilities, socialization and the opportunity to make friends often is lacking,” Horgan said. “It’s tough for you to reach your full potential.”

Horgan would know.

Shortly after he graduated from college, he fell out of a truck and broke his back. He was 22.

“It’s one thing dealing with the physical side, because yeah, you can get a wheelchair and you can start moving around, but emotionally, you don’t feel like you are a whole person,” Horgan said. “I really struggled with that, and still do to this day.”

Horgan said he grew up in the water, and after his accident, he created Shake-A-Leg in his home state of Rhode Island. Dr. Barth Green, the University of Miami neurosurgeon who co-founded The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, persuaded him to move to Miami and start Shake-A-Leg in Coconut Grove.

“I thought Miami could benefit from this program year-round,” Green said. “Depending on their level of disability, it’s hard work and mental exercise. It’s also about taking a deep breath on their own for the first time, without doctors and nurses swarming.”

Amelia Rey, whose son Antonio, 13, is autistic and has physical impairments, says the water activities are therapeutic for her son. Not only does Antonio attend the summer camp, but during the school year he goes to Shake-A-Leg for its Saturday programs.

“It’s working with his physical, which he has issues with as well. In a way, for him kayaking is what he has to do for his physical therapy,” Rey said. “The water just calms my son. It’s a very soothing environment.”

She said it is also a unique place where her son is welcomed, which she says is hard to find.

“As a parent of a child with autism, we don’t have too many options,” Rey said. “There are fewer options as the children get older. I don’t want to leave my son all day doing nothing.”

Year-round, Horgan uses a wheelchair to supervise camp activities and assure smooth sailing. With some help, he boards a small boat, and checks on all of the campers.

“Doing things where you are being productive and helping others gives you the energy and the inspiration to keep going,” he said. “Forming Shake-A-Leg and starting it was a way that I was helping others and helping myself at the same time.”

With that idea in mind, Horgan created an alumni program in which campers who had aged out of the program could return as mentors.

Allister DeLeon, 18, wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to arrive before campers do. He wears a brace on his right foot, which is “a little curved in,” and uses a cane while standing and walking.

“I help staff with the kids when they go out in the water,” DeLeon said. “I make sure all kids are safe and accounted for. Today we went out on a Hobie, and I watch them to make sure they don’t go too far.”

Camper Will Bolash, holding his hips with both arms, explains that he had reconstructive hip surgery after he fell off his bike. He says the camp is where his friends are, and as most campers do, he helps pass out life jackets and keeps an eye on everyone around him.

Maintaining a safe environment and juggling the needs of a mixed group of campers are some of the big questions parents have when they approach Shake-A-Leg. Rey, whose daughter is a mentor at Shake-A-Leg, says she is confident in the safety measures the camp has taken.

“They have mentors, and they are trained. I’ve been there, this is my fourth summer, and when I drop my son off, I don’t worry,” she said.

Dave Loeffler, a teacher at Irving & Beatrice Peskoe K-8 Center during the school year, has worked as a mentor at Shake-A-Leg for the past 11 years. He said safety is tricky, but they have achieved it.

“When you are 15-20 feet away from the water, life jackets come on,” Loeffler said. “There’s not one adult with a group of 20 kids; there’s usually 10 adults with that group. Safety is paramount.”

Loeffler said building a team mentality is key to both fun and safety.

“We encourage a team concept. Always look out for people around you,” he said. “We’re all just one group, it’s all the group of Shake-A-Leg.”

Follow the reporter on Twitter @MelhorL