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Boys Town Residential Treatment Center Youth Get Rare Virtual Experience with Dolphins



Tuesday, December 1, 2020

​Boys Town Residential Treatment Center (RTC) Education Coordinator Alyssa Biskup calls it “a total COVID blessing."

There's one you don't hear very often.

But this story is special.

Florida dolphins helping with the treatment of troubled youth in Nebraska.

Troubled Nebraska youth helping with the treatment of dolphins in Florida.

It all came about in late October when through a mutual acquaintance, Biskup was put in contact with Missy Johnson, a native of Valley, NE, now working at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, FL. The two discussed virtual sessions where Boys Town's RTC students could interact with the dolphins in a fun learning experience.

Then COVID hit the Boys Town RTC.

“We really had a pretty severe outbreak," Biskup said. “This pandemic is hard, but our kids are away from family and friends with or without a pandemic. Anything to connect them to the outside world, especially dolphins, is amazing not only for them but for us as staff to experience with them. We were able to give our kids an experience that will go into their memory bank as a positive one -- maybe an experience they would otherwise never come close to experiencing in a lifetime."

What made the relationship special for both parties was that Island Dolphin Care was experiencing its own COVID crisis.

“Their facility was shut down due to COVID, also," Biskup said. “They couldn't have any visitors into their facility, so our virtual meetings were all each of us had. It was a bad situation, but it fell at exactly the right time for both of us."

Biskup's staff was challenged to get the virtual meetings set up in the individual student's rooms. Due to the pandemic, they weren't able to do the meetings in larger settings. So, Johnson and Island Dolphin Care trainer, Eli Smith, made plans to stream live interactions between the dolphins and their new friends at the Boys Town RTC in Nebraska.

class observing dolphinsSmith, who has a background in special education, served as a guide for the youth. Holding a camera, he walked through the facility, down to the dock and lagoon where the dolphins live. The sessions lasted 45 minutes. During that time, students learned how the dolphins were cared for and how they can help with the treatment of others. They learned about dolphin anatomy and watched and learned how they are trained.

The actual virtual interactions with the dolphins included getting a dolphin kiss, feeding the dolphins and learning about their behavior management.

“Even though they were watching on laptops, these were live, unplanned interactions for our kids," Biskup said. “We had never done anything like this before. It was an incredible opportunity and it really was a nice, relaxing project that helped the kids get through a tough time and gave them a chance to have fun, too."

Biskup estimated that around 60 students participated in the dolphin experience. She said it also provided something different for her staff.

“We were all hands on deck due to the COVID outbreak," she said. “It gave our teachers 45 minutes of therapeutic relief. It was a great experience for everyone."

Biskup said students weren't asked to write any reports or do special school assignments with the dolphin experience. Instead, she said they just wanted everyone to relax and enjoy.

“It really was never intended to be an academic project," she said. “We just wanted them to enjoy the experience. Afterwards, we just talked about what they had seen and heard. I think it left quite an impression on everyone involved."

Johnson said the experience was a satisfying one for the staff of Island Dolphin Care, as well.

“2020 has been an unprecedented year for us here at Island Dolphin Care, just like it has been for so many others," she said. “This year our primary focus is keeping our staff and family of dolphins safe and taken care of until we are able to re-open and safely continue our in-person therapy programs."

She said being able to work with an organization like Boys Town fits into Island Dolphin Care's philosophy of helping others.

“Working with organizations such as Boys Town is phenomenal because the passion and love for education and well-being for children is shared," Johnson said. “We were honored to get to be a part of such a life-changing time for the children that Boys Town works with. In times like these, with so many changes to life and what feels 'normal,' we can sometimes forget to notice and appreciate the changes that are positive. In a typical year, we probably would not have had the opportunity to get to know the children you serve at Boys Town, or to share our services, dolphins, or story with all of you."

Johnson said 2020 is the perfect year for groups to come together and help each other.

“It is so very important during this pandemic that we as a larger community ban together and share all that we can with one another," she said. “It's important to know there is hope and love still surrounding us, and it's good to have reminders to look for it. In difficult times such as these, we all need as many smiles, giggles and as much hope as we can get our hands on. It's pertinent that we remember children are just as affected by this current climate as adults are. Staying strong together is what will help pull all of us through to the other side of this as better people and a stronger community."

Island Dolphin Care's Mission Statement states that it is “To provide unique, animal-assisted (dolphin), therapeutic, motivational and educational therapy programs to children, adults with special needs, and their families and caregivers. Through interactive programs, education and research, participants are inspired to value and respect marine mammals and their environment."

The Boys Town Residential Treatment Center (RTC) provides medically directed care for children ages 5 to 17 who have severe behavioral health problems or mental illness. The Center is licensed as a Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) by the state of Nebraska and is accredited by The Joint Commission. The troubled children, pre-teens and teens Boys Town serves need systematic and professional treatment for their behavioral, emotional and academic problems.