A hush of silence filled Erika Tencer’s birthing room. It was Nov 17, 1995 and Tencer had just given birth to a baby girl but there were no congratulations to be heard.Doctors, nurses and family stood uncomfortably around her bed, at a loss for words. Her newborn daughter Atara Stolovitsky was diagnosed with Down syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by minor to severe delays and limitations in both physical and intellectual development.“I remember when my gynecologist at the time came into my room, he just sat on my bed and stared at me. One would think that you would give a little support and make it a positive verbal discussion,” she recounts, “Not one person congratulated me and we did not have a lot of support.”
A new beginning
Bringing a young girl with Down Syndrome into the world marked an important turning point for Tencer. Initially a photographer, she decided to dedicate her life to helping others by becoming a recreational therapist. She embarked on a journey of raising awareness and sensitivity towards children with disabilities. Together, through their program called Influential Awareness, Tencer and her daughter Atara make individuals of all ages discover that kids with special needs are complex, unique beings with a range of skills and talents.
“Atara is very task oriented, beyond sociable and easy to get along with,” says Tencer. “But she is just like you and I. We all have our days. She will be all smiley and happy, then will trip [coming] off the bus and milk it for the rest of the day.”
Like most teenagers, Atara also happens to have a very busy schedule. While pursuing functional education at the Summit School in Ville Saint-Laurent, she also rides horses and participates in the Special Olympics in Track and Field and Rhythmic Gymnastics.
Dolphin therapy — a controversial approach
Approximately two years ago, Tencer discovered dolphin therapy and thought it would be something Atara could benefit from. Her application was accepted by the Curacao Dolphin Therapy Center and Atara and Tencer’s family are scheduled to travel there in November. However, before they can go they need to raise $12,000.
Dolphin therapy is said to help children and adults with disabilities make progress with their speech, behavior and motor skills. Albeit a controversial approach, many feel it is a worthwhile therapy.“I’ve seen with my own eyes that in some cases it has helped children with disabilities make progress, although not always long lasting,” says Bryan Solloway, an applied behavioral analysis therapist at the Yaldei Developmental Centre in Westmount. “It’s not just the dolphin, it’s not just the therapy or the environment. It’s a combination of all three.”
The unfortunate reality at this point is, as Solloway explains, that there is a scarcity of research on the subject. “There is simply not enough data that says, ‘yes, dolphin therapy is an effective, long-lasting treatment for children with disabilities’. It is still largely experimental.”
While acknowledging that there are centres selling false hopes for dolphin therapy, Sheila Botton, the driving force behind the local charity Dolphin Aid, explains that the centre in Curacao is legitimate. However she makes no guarantees about what Curacao and dolphin therapy can do for Atara. “People have to know we are not saying this is a miracle cure,” she explains “What we are saying is that it is benefiting the child in a great way. There is progress made whether it’s in medication, focus, independence, motor skills, or smiles that weren’t there before.”
As for Tencer, she has no illusions either. She knows that there is no cure for Down syndrome. All she wants, like most mothers, is to provide her daughter with a wide range of experiences and opportunities so that Atara can flourish and reach her full potential.
“I am just looking at Curacao as an amazing opportunity for Atara. For someone with a disability, every experience gives so much opportunity to progress,” she says. “And without an opportunity there can be no progress.”
Atara and her family are still a long ways away from reaching their goal and need your help.To donate and for more information visit ataradolphinaid.wordpress.com.