We aim to extend Day of Discovery experiences to young adventurers challenged with a handicap.
The Oceans are the soup of life. They provide us with Oxygen, the very essence of life. They control not only our weather but our very future on this planet. They have the power to free physically disabled children from their wheelchairs and from gravity, as well as kids with other special needs. On July 14, 2002 a group of special needs children were able to connect with the oceans in a whole new way.
The National Instructors Association for Divers with Disabilities (NIADD), Oceanic and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s dive office worked together to help 20 kids into wetsuits and SCUBA gear complete with a tank and regulator. Each child was breathing through a regulator, their faces peering into the aquarium’s Great Tide Pool waters, exploring the ocean for animals but most importantly being a child without a disability for over a half -hour. On that day these children were equally free as their fellow dive buddies alongside them. Each child and dive buddy shared a very special connection along with a new found appreciation for the wonders of the sea. The elation on each child’s face did not go unnoticed during this first “Day of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges.”
The excitement was not contained to the participants alone. All of the volunteer divers who helped, staff that volunteered their Sunday morning to serve hot chocolate and media that covered the story became enraptured with excitement. As each child came out of the water smiling and full of stories, the tears started to flow. Everyone in attendance committed to being involved in the next “Day of Discovery” program.
The kids wanted something else that day. They wanted us, the able bodies or Temporarily Able Bodies (TAB’s) to know them better. They wanted us to know that they can do things, lots of things and not to count them out. That message was received loud and clear and they definitely opened some minds that day.
That first “Day of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges” has since evolved into the Underwater Explorers program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium purchased state of the art equipment to outfit children for a 90-minute surface SCUBA experience in the 50 degree waters of our Great Tide Pool. Underwater Explorers is a summer long dive program for kids ages 8 – 13. Since its inception in 2003, the program has served nearly 19,000 children including hundreds with disabilities.
During the summer of our 2004 Underwater Explorers season a courageous young boy by the name of Zach Bunnell joined us for a dive. Zach had an amazing day and touched many lives. He was blinded by a brain tumor but that did not stop him from showing us all how to live life to the fullest. After Zach’s passing it was evident that this special day during our summer staff training would be known in future years as the “Zach Bunnell Day of Discovery for Kids with Exceptional Challenges.” The magical day is in honor of 10- year old Zach, who fulfilled a year-long wish to participate in Underwater Explorers in 2004, despite fighting cancer. Zach passed away a few months after fulfilling his dream, but his gentle and witty spirit is remembered by several aquarium staff.
As years passed our group of supporters and sponsors has widened. In 2005 we were able to offer Zach’s day and one other “Day of Discovery” during the summer. This allowed more children with disabilities the opportunity to participate. We were fortunate to have the support of many aquarium volunteer divers and staff to help during these special days. Two volunteer divers in particular, Steve Lyon and Marv Tuttle, have been instrumental to the success of Day of Discovery. These two men helped us understand the needs of physically and mentally challenged children better. They also began much of the recruiting to get the word out about the program. Furthermore their tireless efforts to make these programs financially accessible through fundraising efforts have been admirable.
In recent years we have grown to hold Zach Bunnell’s Day of Discovery, along with three other Days of Discovery throughout each summer. With the support of all of the Aquarium community this program continues to offer a unique opportunity for this most underserved audience. The program has come to embody the spirit of inspiring conservation of the oceans through volunteerism, which is a foundation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.