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UCP of Central Florida Teaches Beyond Classroom Curriculum


Aiden was a “typical” little boy until, one day, he awoke with new and unexplainable disabilities. “I wasn’t able to talk,” the now sixth-grader recalls. Doctors struggled to diagnosis his sudden non-verbal condition, while his frightened familystruggled to navigate support resources. They discovered UCP of Central Florida, a nonprofit charter school and therapy center serving more than 3,000 children across seven Orlando area campuses. UCP aims to “unlock the potential” of children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida and various developmental challenges. “My family, my therapists and my [UCP] school helped me and I can talk perfectly now,” Aiden cheerfully affirms.

“At UCP, we provide a holistic multi-disciplinary approach where all support, education and therapy services are provided together in one facility. Parents of children with special needs receive individualized services that break the mold of traditional education,” says Dr. Ilene Wilkins, President/CEO. That includes physical, speech and occupational therapy, family counseling and, most importantly, innovative education.

“He’s definitely made a ton of progress. He wasn’t able to talk at all and now he talks all the time! I think the individualized attention that he’s getting when he is learning is very good,” says Aiden’s sister, Anna. “At UCP, every kid is different and all the teachers understand that.” UCP has maintained this distinctive approach for more than sixty years. UCP was founded in 1955 by a group of parents advocating for their children with disabilities. Over time, services grew to meet demands of babies through young adults, including a college transition program and job internship placement. Plus, children who attend traditional public school elsewhere can also access therapy services. Dr.Wilkins explains that providing therapy services on-site offers a streamlined and immersive approach to development. Therapists collaborate with teachers to reinforce individualized learning and therapy to grant consistency to the child and ease to parents.

“At UCP, we provide a holistic multi-disciplinary approach where allsupport, education and therapy services are provided together in one facility.Parents of children with special needs receive individualized services thatbreak the mold of traditional education.” – Dr. Ilene Wilkins

UniqueLearning Models

UCP’s education has evolved with the implementation of “inclusion” learning. Approximately 44 percent of the student population is now comprised of children without disabilities. “We’ve pivoted away from the traditional self-contained classroom for a model that aims to give all children access to the same high-quality educational experience. At UCP, children with and without disabilities share the same classrooms, playgrounds and lunchrooms. It’s a school culture centered around equal access, collaboration, de-stigmatization of disabilities and promoting each individual student’s strengths and potential,” says Dr. Wilkins, whose concept leadership has been praised nationwide. She acknowledges that misconceptions surrounding inclusion remain. For example, some assume that children without disabilities may be disadvantaged in learning or not experience gains from peers with disabilities. “In reality, our classrooms provide additional layers of instructional support for all students. Our students without disabilities learn a degree of determination and ambition watching their peers with a disability that can push the student to test their own limits,” says Dr.Wilkins, who attests to boosts of educational and interpersonal development for both children with and without disabilities. Inclusion helps students learn new and unique ways to overcome hurdles associated with disabilities and, especially for those without disabilities, teaches empathy. “They often learn to digest their curriculum in a way that they can communicate it to help their peers with disabilities, leading to more significant retention of instruction. This model is the foundation of a culture where children don’t define each other by their differences and teachers find the strengths in all children regardless of their challenges,” says Dr. Wilkins.

This holds true with young Aiden’s testimony who says he doesn’t see people’s disabilities as a negative: “It’s nice for people to be different.” And the same goes for best friends Tyrrill and Ranielle. Tyrrill was born with spina bifida which impacts his lower limb mobility. Yet, Ranielle, a non-disabled inclusion peer, says he’s a great dancer; and he thinks she’s a great reader. “Everyone has their challenges,” says Ranielle; and “We help each other overcome them,” adds Tyrrill. These third graders support each other academically and socially, as do countless UCP students.

Inaddition to inclusion, UCP utilizes a project-based learning model which integrates innovative art and technology. Most campuses have a 1:1 tablet and iPad program and, thanks to a new grant, UCP will soon implement a robotics effort.

TheBeta Center

After 45 years as an independent school, shelter and daycare for teen moms and their babies, theBeta Center merged with UCP (in partnership with Orange County Public Schools) to avoid closure. Dr. Wilkins says the merger was a natural fit. “The core of what we do is give extraordinary young people the tools to unlock their potential. UCP has always believed that a young person should not be defined by their challenges,” she says of long standing tradition of inventive success. At the Beta Center’s alternative middle and high school, teen mothers continue their education and also get vital assistance through UCP’s childcare services, pre-natal nursing support, parental training and group counseling.

UCP’s tuition is free for eligible students with additional option plans, including coverage by commercial insurance and Medicaid. However, UCP operations dependon the financial contributions of individual, corporate and foundation donors.There are many ways to support the mission, including fundraising events. UCP will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its Evening at The Palace Gala on April 7, 2018 at Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace. This event and UCP’s Poker at the Palace Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament held the night prior are both hosted by award-winning actress Cheryl Hines, best known for HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Hines passion for disability-related activism is inspired by her nephew, Michael, who was born premature with cerebral palsy. He became a UCP of Central Florida student. To learn more about UCP and to support the mission,visit or call (407) 852-3300.

Photo above: Actress Cheryl Hines with her nephew Michael. Courtesy of UCP.

Spencer’s Sensory Shop: A Business Blanketed with Disability Research


When the AmeriDisability Services team met Karen Spencer, at the Family Cafe 2017 event, it was obvious that her story was one that had to be shared with our readers along with her incredibly affordable products. Karen is the owner, creator and designer for Spencer’s Sensory Shop where you can purchase weighted blankets, lap pads and wraps for every family member at a fraction of the normal retail price.

Blanketed with Disability Research

Always creating or making something, Karen just happened to fall into creating weighted blankets as a way to help her autistic step-son, Noah. She remembers trying so many different remedies but nothing was helping with his meltdowns or excessive crying due to being overstimulated or upset. As she researched, like many parents do, she came across weighted blankets and learned the numerous effects of using one for not only children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but also for those dealing with many other health challenges.

Weighted blankets, lap pads, and wraps are therapy tools that utilize the science of Deep Touch Pressure (DTP) to generate the feeling of calmness and almost a hugging sensation as it distributes a light pressure equally across the parts of the body that it covers. According to, weighted blankets and deep touch pressure helps calm the “arousal level in the system” as well as “helps with self-regulation.” It is like the ultimate teddy bear!

Many benefits of DTP have been shown to help people of varying ages who deal with ADD/ADHD spectrum disorder, Asperger’s and autism spectrum disorder, sensory disorders, sleep disorders, restless leg syndrome, anxiety, as well as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.  The list goes on and virtually anyone could truly benefit from having a weighted blanket or pad.

After reading about the benefits of weighted blankets, Karen knew she had to purchase one for her son, but quickly realized that they came at a high price, one that her and her large family were not able to afford. So, she put her skills of making tutus’ and hair bows to use by making a weighted blanket that would provide her son access to this much needed form of therapy. Karen shares that now, when Noah is over stimulated or upset, his weighted blanket or vest helps him tremendously.

The Ability to Create a Disability-Serving Business

It was soon after making her first weighted blanket that she had an ah-ha moment. She realized she needed to make these for other families who were in need of a tool but could not afford it.  On that very day, she chose to change her business from creating custom tutus’ and hair bows to making weighted blankets.

What differentiates Karen from other weighted blanket companies is not only her affordable price tag but that she customizes each and every blanket.  Every customer has the opportunity to choose their fabric and color or pattern!  Being a mother of nine, she knows what patterns, animated characters and colors would best interest the user.  She is always changing her selection to meet the unique tastes and needs for each of her customers. Using the latest character crazes help kids instantly fall in love with their blankets! Lastly, she sends every blanket off with a prayer to serve its new owner with the comfort they deserve and require.

Karen’s attention to detail and optimal customer experience has helped to grow her online business into a loving community with customers who are beyond pleased with her work.  Customers have used them at home, in their classrooms, and even for themselves!  One such customer shared, “Spencer’s Shop weighted blankets work wonders for my son who needs that extra comfort to fall asleep.  She [Karen] was very attentive on what I wanted and always kept me up to date with my order. I would recommend her for all your sensory needs.”

Spencer’s Sensory Shop’s main objective is “Anyone who needs a weighted blanket is going to have one.”  Karen lives up to that promise by offering layaway options.  You can also pay for your weighted therapy tools with a healthcare savings account associated with your health insurance!

Currently, you can order the blankets online through Karen’s Facebook business page, and be sure to follow her page to receive information about the latest sales, patterns, and give-a-ways! You can also contact her directly by Support a small business and grab your affordable, multi-purpose weighted blanket today!

Article photos courtesy of Karen Spencer.

Photo below, Discovery Kit, Spencer’s Sensory Shop, courtesy of Karen Spencer.

New Smart Toy is Game-Changer for Children with Developmental Disorders


Many parents worry about their children spending too much time playing with tablets, video consoles and other high-tech toys. But what if there was a tech device designed to help exceptional children live exceptional lives? That’s the goal of Leka, an interactive and multi-sensory smart toy offering children with special needs the ability to play fun and educational games that motivate social interactions; increase motor, cognitive and emotional skills; and stimulate autonomy.

The product prototype was developed in 2015 in Paris, France and has since gone through extensive testing. “We didn’t get into robotics because we like the science. We got into robotics because we saw the potential to help children who need it the most,”said Ladislasde Toldi, who co-founded Leka with Marine Couteau. The designing pair was inspired to create a tool to benefit children with autism spectrum disorder. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines autism spectrum disorder as a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. It affects one out of every 68 children. And because autism impacts individuals differently, deToldi said Leka was developed to be highly customizable and highly reliable.

Children with autism spectrum disorder may prefer to play independently versus with another child, so it serves as a robotic companion. However, it’s much more than that with features that motivate and help children to learn and play, such as: Mobility ─its spherical shape offers unique movement engagement (it also has a remote control function); Communication ─ Leka has audible and visual engagement; Emotions─ Leka’s facial expressions help with symbolization, communication and feelings; Interactivity ─ personalized sensors allow Leka to respond to a child’s interactions; and Sensory stimulation ─ the device has lights, sounds and vibrates. “Colors, sounds and vibrations can be specifically adjusted to each child in order to avoid over stimulation,” de Toldi said.

leka duplo 4 accessible toy for kids with developmental disabilities

The Leka says that “observations have shown great results with children from ages 3 to 6. Although we believe in early childhood care, Leka can also fit the needs of exceptional grade schooler and teens (from 6 to 18).” And while it is designed for children with special needs, it may also be suitable for any child between ages 3 to 6.

Support for Leka and its applications have stemmed from individuals and autism-associated organizations in both France and the United States. Financial backing also came through a successful crowdfunding campaign with Indiegogo. For more information, visit and direct questions to Leka is now taking pre-orders with a final product expected to ship later this year. Orders include a Leka (available in orange, blue, rose or green), a dock station, 5 easy-to-program RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, a USB Bluetooth Dongle for your computer and an educational guide. Organizations and/or institutions (not individuals) that would like a live demonstration can email for consideration. If you want to be a part of the evolution of this game-changing smart toy, apply for Leka’s Alpha Development Program. It grants select professionals, parents and developers a chance to offer valuable product feedback.

F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Down Syndrome West Florida


Need support preparing for your Down Syndrome child, or a place for you and your family to unwind and have fun?  Families Raising Inspiring Educating and Networking for Down Syndrome West Florida (F.R.I.E.N.D.S.) is here to help!  The president, Ann Foyt, came to the organization in 2014 to expand resources and provide support to children, parents and their families.  After raising her own son with Down Syndrome, she’s experienced first-hand the feelings of isolation and confusion that arise if you’re unsure where to turn for support.  Although 90% of babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted for various reasons, Foyt believes that all parents should “give kids a chance – they can do it!”

It was this belief that led Foyt to expand the organization and provide Down Syndrome support in as many ways as possible throughout Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco,and Hernando counties.  Over the last three years, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. has provided support to 800 families through four main resources: Parent Packets and Parent Liaisons to help expectant parents, scholarships for sports, conferences, and education, and events for infants, children and teens. They also help coordinate opportunities for those with Down Syndrome to learn activities suited for their abilities, whether playing football, practicing ballet, or learning social and occupational skills.

Having a child with Down Syndrome for the first time brings many emotions and questions to parents, regardless of whether they expect it or not. Parent Packets are given to new parents to provide health information for the child, as well as pamphlets and brochures from agencies providing support (available in both English and Spanish). Parent Liaisons are F.R.I.E.N.D.S. members who are available to provide Packets and personal support. Visit if you’d like to connect with these resources.

Scholarships are available for various activities, including conferences that provide information to Down Syndrome individuals and their families, as well as, sports activities such as swimming, summer camps, and gymnastics. Educational scholarships are available to provide support with activities including IEP training, private tutoring, and auditing college courses. They also provide scholarships for an evaluation of a child’s educational needs and abilities at Hope Haven’s Down Syndrome Center in Jacksonville, FL. Visit the FRIENDS Down Syndrome scholarship page for more information.

In just three short years, F.R.I.E.N.D.S. has also started what have become annual events.  Yearly events include the World Down Syndrome Day in March, a Down Syndrome Awareness Picnic in July, and the Annual Buddy Walk, one of their largest events.  The 2nd Annual FDSWF Buddy Walk is being held this Fall on October 7, 2017, at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Those of all ages and abilities are welcome to come walk the mile in support of Down Syndrome, cheer the walkers on, discover what resources are available, or even just to get the support of families, sponsors, and friends.  Food trucks will be there to serve participants, volunteers, and on lookers while superheroes, princesses, Star Wars characters, and the Ghostbusters will join in the fun for photo opportunities and activities.  If you’d like to donate, be a sponsor, or volunteer, visit

FRIENDS Down Syndrome Buddy Walk of Tampa family with a storm trooper

F.R.I.E.N.D.S. also needs volunteers in other areas as well. Working from home, Foyt needs help with networking and marketing for F.R.I.E.N.D.S.  They need help coordinating student volunteers from the University of South Florida for each of their events.  During our interview Foyt said that she’s also seeking young adults to come join and create events for those graduating from college.

If you have any ideas or would like to volunteer, email, signup on their site, or in person at one of their events.

Holistic Therapies You Need to Know About


Are you familiar with “holistic” or “natural” remedies? These labeling terms are used to describe a wide array of nontraditional health and wellness practices that fall outside of conventional care, like pharmaceutical or surgical treatments. Some common examples of holistic and/or natural care are acupuncture, massage and meditation.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, more than 30 percent of adults and about 12 percent of children use health care approaches developed outside of mainstream Western medicine. Most integrate as “complementary” versus “alternative” treatments, meaning in addition to conventional methods rather than in place of. Here are some holistic therapies to know:  


Chromotherapy (also referred to as color therapy) uses color and light to treat physical and mental health by balancing the body’s energy centers, also known chakras. The body has seven chakras that connect with colors: root (red), sacral (orange), solar plexus (yellow), heart (green), throat (blue), third eye (indigo) and crown (violet). Interestingly, Egyptians first used chromotherapy with sun-activated solarium rooms constructed with colored glass. Try it with colored-tinted eye glasses, artistic applicationslike painting, room design and colorpuncture (colored light frequencies applied to “acu-points”). 

Craniosacral Therapy

Craniosacral therapy is a gentle, massage-style technique used to reduce the tension and stress of the craniosacral system, which is comprisedof membranes and fluid that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. Craniosacral therapy may be associated with energy medicine, a form of healing that restores or balances the flow of energies within the body. Live Strong ( recently published that, according to craniosacral therapists, “the treatment may relieve pain, joint problems, chronic fatigue, depression, hyperactivity and various diseases affecting the nervous, immune or endocrine systems.” 


Aromatherapy uses essential oils distilled from various plants. According to the Mayo Clinic (, it stimulates “smell receptors in the nose, which then send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system ─ the part of the brain that controls emotions.” Studies have shown that aromatherapy might reduce anxiety, depression, headaches, pain (especially for people with kidney stones or osteoarthritis), and also improve sleep and quality of life.  

Essential oils for aromatherapy

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy exposes the body to 100 percent oxygen, whereas the air we normally breathe contains 21 percent oxygen, says Alternatives for Healing ( This non invasive technique is administered in a large pressurized chamber. It may treat wounds, infections and stimulate circulation.  

Laughter Therapy

Laughter therapy is no joke! Laughing stimulates hormones called catecholamines, which in turn release endorphins that positively aid happiness and relaxation. So, could laughter really be the best medicine? Perhaps, as possible benefits include stress reduction, muscle relaxation, lowered blood pressure and strengthen of the immune system.


Neurofeedback, as defined by the Bcenter (,“is a method of exercising the brain in order to change its function and eventually its structure over time. Individuals are connected up to a computer using sensors to detect the small electrical impulses (brainwaves) that make their way through the skull to the scalp.” Essentially, neurofeedback brings balance to the brain and the central nervous system, says Associated Counseling & Neurofeedback ( It may benefit many aspects of cognitive abilities, movement, energy and mood.

Orlando Ballet Steps Up Instructional Routine with Adaptive Dance Program

Every Saturday, a small group of enthusiastic students arrive at an Orlando Ballet studio ready to dance in a special hour-long class. Some wear tutus and tights, some wear colored tape on their ballet flats to distinguish left from right; but all wear a joyful smile. The tiny dancers are a part of the Adaptive Dance Program designed to encourage children (ages 7-14) with Down syndrome to express themselves creatively through music, movement and dance. Modeled after the Boston Ballet’s effort, the Orlando program launched in 2013 and offers two10-week sessions at the Orlando Ballet’s south campus in Dr. Phillips.

Randee Workowski, Orlando Ballet’s outreach coordinator and an Adaptive Dance instructor, is mindful of the student’s developmental delays and uses a gentler instructional pace and curriculum. “Our students may struggle with balance or not have bilateral coordination,” she explains. Thus, Workowski says the course begins with simple stability exercise and stretching but, over time as with all dancers, repetition builds physical and emotional strength allowing the dancers to advance.

Workowski says she uses more of a theatrical approach versus traditional ballet training. However, the Adaptive Dance students are, indeed, taught classic ballet moves and proper terminology (i.e. chasse, plié, pirouette, etc.). “We try to give them as much professional dancing and technical skills as possible,” Workowski says. That includes ballet (and some jazz) exercises on both the bar and dance floor. Many students prefer to dance independently but, for those who want or need physical help, assistant ballerinas working alongside the instructor provide hands-on support.

“We really see the progression happen when students stay with it.” – Randee Workowski

Parents say their kids look forward to the weekly sessions and practicing at home. “That is an affirmation that we are doing something wonderful,” declares Workowski. Windermere resident and mother of three, Marit Loessl attests to that declaring that her son,13-year-old Frederik Raaberg, who has Down syndrome, Type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, has loved dancing in the program for the past four years. “This class works on all types of dance ─ not only ballet. It includes warm-up, stretching, balancing, jumping, skipping, listening, following directions, rhythm, musicality wit several different music genres…all combined in one class,” Loessl describes. She’s noticed improvements to Frederick’s balance, coordination, expression and self-esteem.

Come Dance with Us participants with Orlando Ballet Company’s Ashley Baszto.                                Photo by Francesca Agostino.

“We really see the progression happen when students stay with it,” Workowski says. And that might lead to typical class inclusion. “Orlando Ballet is willing to have [adaptive] children progress into a typical class when they are ready. We would love to mainstream and that’s a possibility. In fact, we do have a 14-year-old student who’s been in Adaptive Dance and is now enrolling in the pre-professional program.”

Last year, Anne-Marie Wurzel, whose daughter has special needs, encouraged the Orlando Ballet to host a Come Dance With Us workshop, an effort first launched by the New York City Ballet for children with disabilities. In partnership with physical therapists from Nemours Children’s Hospital and Orlando Health, Orlando Ballet welcomed children with wheelchairs, leg braces and array of special needs to live out their ballerina dreams alongside professional Orlando Ballet Company dancers, including Arcadian Broad. “I never in a million years would I have imagined saying ‘my daughter is in a ballet,’” Ninoshka Goire shared; her daughter has spina bifida. “It was a very surreal moment seeing her dancing with the ballerinas. That was something that lived in my dreams.” The next Come Dance With Us workshop will be held on October 15 and 22 at the Orlando Ballet’s central campus in downtown Orlando. For more information on both the Adaptive Dance Program and Come Dance With Us workshop, visit

Photo credits:

Preview image & Image above: Come Dance with Us participant(s) with Orlando Ballet Company’s Ashley Baszto. Photo by Francesca Agostino.

Seniors Connect With Computer Classes


Technology is second nature for younger generations who are accustom to computers, cellular phones, video game consoles and more. For many seniors, however, the ever-changing world of computer-based technology can feel foreign. In May 2017, a Pew Research study revealed significant increases of tech use among older adults, citing that roughly two-thirds of those ages 65 and older go online – a 55 percent increase in just under two decades.

Perhaps the increase of technology adoption among older adults may be attributed, inpart, to helpful organizations like Seniors Now Learning Center, a volunteer-run nonprofit offering instructional courses in various computer subjects and more. “We’re an organization of seniors teaching seniors,” described Zed Troth, who serves as the nonprofit’s president. At 52, Zed and his wife, Kim, are the only volunteers technically not yet classified as seniors. Working in the business field of computers, Zed connected with Seniors Now simply wanting to aid others interested in obtaining computer-based knowledge. “I run a full-time business a part from donating 100 hours a month to run the Seniors Now organization,” he explains. And, as senior students can attest, his efforts are making a difference!

“Zed and his wife are very knowledgeable,” says Teri Mahon, a 71-year-old WinterSprings resident. “I’ve [also] gone to classes at the Apple store and I had abetter experience taking classes with Seniors Now.” Students like Teri respond to the instructional approach of Seniors Now. Held at the Marks Street Senior Center in Orange County, classes are limited to ten students with one instructor and typically an additional two to four coaches (i.e. assistants). “Where we differ is that we’re not just a teacher standing up lecturing to a large class. We employee multiple coaches in addition to the teacher, so it’s unique in that we are somewhat closer to a one-on-one learning experience,” Zed said.Classes are taught at a gentler pace whereas, as with Teri’s experience at Apple, classes taught by other technology companies can feel too advanced or too fast-paced for novice computer users.

Seniors Now assists about 500 students per year with a volunteer staff of five instructors, fifteen coaches and other administrative helpers.The majority of students, says Zed, have never touched a computer and, thus,the three most popular courses are: Introduction to Computers, Exploring Your Computer and Introduction to the iPad. Seniors Now offers twelve classes, ranging from basic use of the internet and email to advanced courses on specific software and online tools. “Once a person learns how to send an email and work the internet, the sky becomes the limit because they can teach themselves [via the internet] from there,” declares Zed. While he acknowledges that computers can feel intimidating to seniors, he reiterates that gaining minimal computer skills can maximize opportunities for one’s passions. For example, access to internet can help one learn about gardening, sewing, fishing or any other personal hobby.

Senior couple using the computer to find hobbies and search the internet

While computers may be used for hobbies,Teri believes they’ve become a necessity. “I think it’s more of a survival for us as seniors,” she said. “For example, I just went up north and had an airline ticket and, of course,the airline wants you to print it out before you get there. You can’t do things like that if you don’t know how. It’s those kinds of daily encounters ─ and other directives to visit websites [for information] ─ that makes it vital for seniors to stay apprised of technology.” Over the past four years, Teri’s taken three courses with Seniors Now, including Introduction to the iPad. She’s planning to enroll in the Using Your Digital Photos class because, nowadays, she uses her smartphone for photography rather than a camera.

Seniors Now was founded twenty years ago, which directly correlates to the time frame of the Pew Research study. However, while this progress is wonderful, the remaining one-third of adults ages 65 and older surveyed said they never use the internet, with about half saying that broadband services were not even installed at home. But Seniors Now can help! For more information, visit or call (407) 318-3256.

Photo above: Students of Seniors Now at Mark St.

Whispering Meadows Ranch Saddles Up for Life-Changing Rides


Kristine Aguirre humbly says her family’s goodwill steered their way to their innovative family-run charity. “My mom and I were both volunteering with horses and discovered the beautiful system of equine-assisted therapy,” she recalls. Themother-daughter duo traveled across the state of Florida from their home in Flagler Beach to Ocala to earn instructor certification through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, the credentialing authority of equine-assisted therapy specialists. Then, in 2008, Kristine and her parents, Helene and Richard Davis, transformed their family farm into Whispering Meadows Ranch, a nonprofit property dedicated to enriching the lives of those with disabilities through recreational and educational equine-assisted programs and activities.

“We grew from one rider, in 2009, to [being at] full capacity today with 35 weekly riders with four horses,” says Kristine, who serves as the program director alongside 35-45 volunteers. The ranch offers therapeutic horseback riding, horsemanship, a work program and school outreach, in addition to special events like the upcoming Fall Harvest Celebration.

“We customize each lesson plan to the client’s needs and establish goals that increase well-being and confidence,” says Kristine. According to Whispering Meadows, research supports that students who participate in therapeutic riding experience physical, emotional and mental rewards. “Horses have a gait similar to humans so hips move as if you were walking, which is important to help individuals with balance, flexibility and strength,” Kristine describes. She says that horses “talk” to people with their bodies and, thus, is a language that people can learn to “speak” regardless of verbal and/or other disabilities. Whispering Meadows has a wheelchair-accessible mounting ramp, in addition to adaptive harnesses, belts and other gear designed to give participants of all abilities safe and enjoyable riding experiences.

Girl with Cerebral Palsy taking horseback riding lessons at Whispering Meadows

Seven-year-old Avery, who has cerebral palsy, has taken lessons at Whispering Meadows for five years. “We go to gain strength, balance and control of Avery’s body. She really likes going out to the ranch because it doesn’t feel like therapy,” says her mother Adrienne Bishop, who describes the Aguirre/Davis family as incredible supporters of all visitors. Avery rides on her stomach and grips the adaptive reins near the horse’s core rather than above the animal’s neck. She does sit-ups, truck rotations and other strengthening exercises with the horse and therapists.

“We customize each lesson plan to the client’s needs and establish goals that increase well-being and confidence.” – Kristine Aguirre

Designed for people with both physical and cognitive special needs, the tranquil ranch grounds are lined with oak trees, green pastures and trails believed to naturally serve as a soothing environment for individuals with sensory disabilities and autism spectrum disorder, paired with the calming engagement of the horses. For example, the mother of an autistic participant testified that on the days her son comes to the ranch, he doesn’t experience involuntary tics.

Whispering Meadows also offers horsemanship. These non-riding lessons incorporate therapeutic human-horse interaction to develop strength, endurance and a sense of accomplishment. “We teach how to care for an animal, like feeding, grooming, exercising the horse and barn management. If the participate is interested in progressing, riding can be a reward that we build up to,” says Kristine. Other ranch amenities ─ used by both schools and individuals ─ include a sensory garden, campfire pit, music and crafts.

Designed for young adults with disabilities, Whispering Meadows also facilitates a work-style training program to enhance basic job skills with a focus on teamwork, responsibility and socialization. Workers learn about barn and garden duties, horse care and proper equipment use. Vito and Thomas, 24-year-old twins with cognitive impairments, have been involved with the work program for five years. “My sons enjoy being a part of a loving family. They have the ability to be who they truly are at the ranch,” says their mother Barbara Quadara of the nurturing Aguirre/Davis family. She adds, “The ranch teaches them to respect one another, and to show patience and love for all things.” Barbara says her sons have hands-on opportunities to learn a lot, such as lawn mowing, gardening, wood-working, horsemanship, horse riding, golf cart driving and more. “I could never express my gratitude and love for all that they have done for my children,” Barbara proclaims.

These programs are made possible thanks to funding from the Kiwanis Club, area foundations, and personal donations, along with volunteer support. You can further the mission by sponsoring a rider or contributing a facility wish list item (land and animal care needs). Visit

The “Freedom” of Adaptive Adventures


Adaptive Adventures provides progressive outdoor sports opportunities to improve the quality of life for individuals with physical disabilities and their families. Founder Matt Feeney knows firsthand howimpactful adaptive recreation can be for persons with impairments. An avid mountain biker and skier, Feeney says that sports have always been part of his life ─ traditionally as a youth and, now, adaptively as an adult. In 1988, at the age of 25, Feeney sustained a spinal cord injury following a cliff diving accident while vacationing, which caused paralysis from the waist down. “My first thoughts were not about whether I could have a career or a family; my first thoughts were about whether I would be able to participant in sports. Without the use of my legs, how would I be able to ski or do all of these things that I liked doing?” he recalls pondering.

Soon after, Feeney left his financial job in Denver and moved northwest to Winter Park, Colorado to pursue adaptive ski racing. “The most difficult thing that I’ve ever done in my life is relearn how to ski as a paraplegicin what’s called a monoski,” he declares. A monoski has a mounted seat attached to a single ski and shock absorber frame and is steered by outrigger poles. “Monoskiinggave me freedom! Once I was able to do it independently, it opened up a whole new world,” Feeney explains. He competed with the Winter Park Disabled Ski Team and, later, launched a career as an adaptive sports enthusiast as a ski instructor for the National Sports Center for the Disabled. “I was re-taught by able-bodied people but it made sense that I could teach adaptive skiing more effectively in a seated position by relating to the participants a little better because we faced the same challenges,” he says.

“Monoskiing gave me freedom! Once I was able to do it independently, it opened up a whole new world.” – Matt Feeney

He loved the sport so much and wanted to share it so, in1999, he established Adaptive Adventures, a nonprofit aimed to empower individuals with physical disabilities through the freedom of mobility and sports to, ultimately, build confidence and gain inspiration to accomplish their life goals. “Part of the philosophy of Adaptive Adventures is the socialization ─ bringing people together from all over the country that enjoy outdoor sports and share their stories,” he says, adding: “When I am out of my wheelchair and in my monoski, I can go anywhere on the mountain. And it’s the same with scuba diving or other sports; once I get my gear on, it’s freedom… total freedom. It’s very liberating and I want to give that to others.”

Monoskier with Adaptive Adventures

Adaptive Adventures began hosting occasional ski camps and, today, has grown to serve approximately 2,000 participants through 200 events with skiing, snowboarding, climbing, cycling, dragon boat racing, kayaking, paddle boarding, rafting, sailing, water skiing and wakeboarding. “Now, because of the demand, we started adding weekly events in Denver,” says Feeney. Participantsof all abilities are welcome and provided opportunities to progress, if desired, at their own pace. For example, one might start with a spin class, then join a weekly handcycle ride (by themselves, with a guide or in a group) and, eventually, partake in a 400-mile weeklong bike tour through the mountains.

Girl in an adaptive wakeboard in Denver

Weekly programs are focused in Denver, Colorado and the Greater Chicago area, however the organization works with partners to make adaptive recreation accessible nationwide. “The great thing about Adaptive Adventures is that we’re a very mobile program and have a plethora of trailers full of adaptive gear to help others host events throughout the country.” Funding for Adaptive Adventures comes from three organizational fundraisers, corporate sponsors, grants and individual giving. To learn more or to donate,

Game On! Endless Possibilities Champions Adaptive Sports in South Florida


Denise De Mello spends much of her time on the boccia court at the Club Managers Association ofAmerica Therapeutic Recreation Complex, a Paralympic sports facility equipped with a swimming pool, athletic center and adaptive equipment rentals in Lake Worth,Florida. Not familiar with boccia? “It’s similar to the Italian game of bocce. It’s an interesting game with hand-eye coordination,” says Denise. Played indoors, boccia athletes throw, kick or use an assistive device to propel leather balls as close as possible to a white target ball (the jack). “I hadn’t played wheelchair sports before, so I thought this sport was a good introduction,” she explains. Denise was initially misdiagnosed with cerebral palsy before doctors discovered that her disability actually stemmed from a benign tumor on her spinal cord; but the now 57-year-old hasn’t let her disability slow her down.

Denise learned about adaptive recreation about seven years ago at a gathering of people with physical disabilities. “I got involved [in the group] because I wanted to be more active,” she explains. That objective was shared and, so, the informal assembly formerly obtained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status as Endless Possibilities, an organization that provides adaptive sports and recreation.

Endless Possibilities started with wheelchair rugby play. “The game was first developed in Canada as a team sport for quadriplegic athletes, and was originally known as ‘murderball.’ It was a very intense game of players in metal wheelchair going full speed on a court crashing into each other,” Denise describes. While a level of competitive enthusiasm remains, though with a new focus on positive teamwork, the sport ─ known in the U.S. as quad rugby or wheelchair rugby ─ challenges players to bounce or pass a ball every 10 seconds to, ultimately, carry it across the opponent’s goal line to score.

Endless possibilities wheelchair basketball team playing

Endless Possibilities now offers eight programs: boccia, as described above; goalball, a court game played by visually impaired athletes using an audible ball; handcycling, using an upper-body powered bicycle; power soccer, an indoor version for power wheelchair users; sitting volleyball, adaptive with a lower net and players seated on the court floor; sled hockey, a sit-down version of the sport with two sticks dually used for mobility and play; wheelchair basketball, similar to traditional play for wheelchair users; and wheelchair (or quad) rugby, as previously defined. “Our vision is to expand to include more Paralympicsports,” Denise declares. Endless Possibilities’ programs are offered year-round typically with one to two opportunities per week and are co-ed. Currently, about 100 members ─ ranging from teenagers to seniors ─ participate in both recreational and competitive play depending on the sport.

Endless Possibilities welcomes all individuals with physical disabilities regardless of sport skill level. “We encourage you to come out and at least try something. Every time a new person comes out, they get a big happy smile and say ‘I never thought I could do that!’ We want people to try as many sports as they want to experience that sense of enjoyment,” Denise says. Additionally, members gather socially. “Our monthly meetings are more of a peer support to talk about what’s been going on with one another. We talk about new technology and what is available in [adaptive] sports. But’s it’s a social gathering with people who face similar things so we talk about much more than sports.”

Thanks to support from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, monetary grants and private donations, membership is free! “Endless Possibilities is run completely by volunteers who want to help out, make sure our chairs are working fine for members and are focused on helping to put 100% of donations back into the programs so everyone can participate at no cost,” Denise proclaims. To learn more or to contribute, visit

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