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Children recovering from traumatic injuries get to hang out with some of nature's largest creatures

By Jason Duaine Hahn
July 26, 2018 02:00 PM
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Credit: Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

A Georgia hospital is treating children who are recovering from serious injuries and illnesses to a unique experience that allows them to swim with some of earth’s most majestic — and largest — creatures.

As a part of Georgia Aquarium’s “Journey with Gentle Giants” experience, kids enrolled in the outpatient program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta can sign up for a dive with aquarium’s Manta rays, sea turtles and sawfish, along with thousands of other animals. Yet, the main attraction of the exhibit is the aquarium’s friendly 40-foot-long whale shark, who often likes to brush against visitors in the water.

The exhilarating experience allows the kids a much-needed break as they recover from experiences that have oftentimes limited their mobility. And the program is just one of many that makes CHOA one of PEOPLE’s 2018 Companies That Care. CHOA ranks in at number 19 out of 50 amazing companies.

“The biggest population we see at our day rehab is traumatic brain injuries, and that can be from car accidents or things like that,” Laurelle Scheib, a physical therapist at CHOA, tells PEOPLE. “Our second biggest population have had strokes or spinal cord injuries. The kids who have gotten to go on this journey, they have all had neurological disorders.”

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Credit: Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

The children who participate in the experience are given 30 minutes to swim with the animals, accompanied by members of the aquarium’s dive team. During their session, the kids float in scuba equipment as the friendly creatures swim all around.

To prepare for the trip, CHOA’s therapists will first take the kids to a local pool where they can get acclimated to the water. This allows them to rebuild confidence in themselves and gives them time to adjust their body to their loss of functional mobility.

“When a kid is nervous and says it’s scary because their body isn’t working the same way, we want to give them the experience and that confidence to be in the water,” says Scheib. “It’s really, really cool to see them enjoy that experience and be excited that they can still do things like swimming.”

While offering a fun alternative to their usual occupational therapy, the aquarium is also filled with many benefits for the kids.

“From a therapy perspective, it helps the kids improve their overall functional mobility — from their ability to walk, to their ability to stand. It can also just strengthen all of their muscles, and after a neurological injury, it’s really important to re-educate the muscles and have them work in certain ways,” says Scheib. “A lot of our spinal cord injuries, when they don’t have the function of their lower extremities, it can be a really good benefit to strengthening their upper body and their core as well.”

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But these benefits aren’t just limited to the children themselves. Because their families can go along on the swim, the program provides a much-needed opportunity for parents to participate in a physical activity with their recovering child.

“It shows families that this is something that they can still do, that their child hasn’t changed since their injury or illness,” says Jenny Dilaura, a therapeutic recreation specialist at CHOA’s day rehab program. “It shows them they can still go on these family excursions and still participate in these awesome activities that the aquarium offers. It gives these kids confidence that even though they’ve had an injury or illness, they can still do what they want to do.”

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The half-hour swim with these gentle giants gives the children and their families a bit of hope for the future.

“The families can see and know that even with this injury or illness,” Dilaura says, “life still goes on and they can still do what they want to do as a family.”

CHOA has several other programs that are being recognized through Companies That Care, including their Child Life Carnivals, where families and employees enjoy karaoke, face painting, and I.V. bag tosses, among other activities.

For PEOPLE’s full list of the 2018 Companies That Care winners, click here.