"We're missing parts of our body that helps us move. We are just like each other, really," Braedon tells PEOPLE of Winter the tailless dolphin and himself

By Rose Minutaglio
April 01, 2016 10:10 AM

Ever since 7-year-old Braedon Monthony saw Winter the dolphin’s prosthetic tail in the hit movie Dolphin Tale, he’s been longing to meet his idol.

“She’s just like me! We’re missing parts of our body that helps us move,” Braedon, who lost both of his legs below the knee to a bacterial form of meningitis shortly after he was born, explains to PEOPLE. “We are just like each other, really.”

After seven months of fundraising, Braedon’s dream finally came true. During an emotional meet-and-greet at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Monday, the vivacious first-grader finally met his beloved “spirit animal.”

“We became BFFs!” Braedon says excitedly.

Braedon smiling as Winter splashes him with water
Clearwater Marine Aquarium

The elementary school student set up a lemonade stand in front of his Hamburg, New York, home in August to help his family fund the trip to the aquarium, where trainers helped Winter learn to swim without a tail.

With the money he raised selling lemonade – $200 – and the thousands of dollars that poured in from his New York community, Braedon, his parents and his siblings, Joey, 9, and Brynn, 4, were finally able to fulfill Braedon’s dream.

Braedon watching in awe as Winter, a tailless dolphin, does tricks in the water
Clearwater Marine Aquarium

At the aquarium on Monday, Braedon talked with Winter, stroked her “smooth but sort of slimy” skin and even got into a splashing fight with the playful dolphin.

“He was so excited and laughing and smiling as he was meeting his hero,” Braedon’s mother, Elaine Monthony, tells PEOPLE. “They just had this instant connection, this bond, because they both have lost a part of themselves, but somehow they both have this amazing, happy attitude.”

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The mother adds, “I was sobbing the entire time. My son’s dream finally came true.”

Braedon Monthony
Elaine Mothony

Braedon, who had both legs amputated when he was 6 months old, has been wearing prostheses since he was a baby, but Elaine says her son doesn’t view himself as “disabled.”

The spunky, active young boy rides a handcycle on the streets of his New York neighborhood, plays hide-and-seek with friends (he runs on his knees) and chases his siblings around the yard.

“I can do anything,” he says proudly.

Braedon riding his handcycle
Elaine Mothony

But Braedon’s favorite activity, much like Winter, is swimming.

“He always wants to get in the water,” says Elaine. “He’s passionate and strong and he’s the type of kid that really doesn’t let anything get in his way. I think that’s why he connected so much with Winter and her story.”

“I love to swim!” says Braedon. “That is why I like Winter and visiting her was a dream come true.”

Braedon swimming
Elaine Mothony

David Yates, CEO of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, says he was “amazed,” by the instant connection between Braedon and Winter.

“I told Braedon, you’re a winner, you’re her story in human form,” he tells PEOPLE. “They bonded on this deep level because they both have a truly great, positive outlook on life.”

The aquarium owner thinks everyone can learn a lot from the young boy.

“He is so composed, despite the struggles he’s gone through,” he says. “It is very inspiring to see him running around on his knees, with a huge grin on his face.”

Braedon and his brother, Joey, playing with Winter
Clearwater Marine Aquarium

When Braedon grows up, he’d like to be a dolphin trainer that works with “special dolphins” like Winter.

“This way I can play with them and help them to become strong again and hug them,” he says.

“Plus, I can train them!” Braedon adds. “So when other kids want to visit dolphins they can be happy too.”