MIAMI — Harry Horgan has made clear his commitment to helping children of all abilities and walks of life: As co-founder and president of Shake-A-Leg Miami, he has spent nearly 30 years getting children into boats and out onto Biscayne Bay.
Horgan himself is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, and is committed to helping those who find themselves in similar situations. "We believe that the water has healing and rejuvenating qualities, and so putting children in the water changes things," he said.
Shake-A-Leg began in 1990, and formed a partnership with the city of Miami to turn a run-down, underutilized park into a premier boating center catering to people with special needs, Horgan said. With the help of the city, Shake-A-Leg refurbished a 1932 hangar, built a new building and docks, and created islands.
According to Horgan, the whole project, which was fueled by the public-private partnership, cost about $6.5 million.
"We believe that we are the public's access to the bay, and that no barrier is too hard to enter," Horgan said. "Don't have any money? No problem, we can get scholarships. Use a wheelchair or are on the autism spectrum? We welcome you."
Through its city partnership, Shake-A-Leg has been able to create world-class programs. "We see ourselves as the most inclusive program in the county," Horgan said. "If you were to talk to the Children's Trust, a lot of the children with disabilities get referred to us."
Since sailing is a year-round activity in South Florida, Shake-A-Leg runs programs other than summer camp. The Seaworthy Program is a program during the school year aimed at children with disabilities. The program is divided into two groups — the first for children from middle school to young adulthood; the second for people in high school through their early 30s.
The younger group "is here for education and recreation, and to be inspired so that they can do better in school, create some social skills, and know they have a place that is theirs," Horgan said.
The older group is for students aging out of high school, to give them a sense of purpose by expanding and developing their skills so that they can be prepared for potential employment.
The Seaworthy Program partners with Miami-Dade Public Schools including Homestead Middle and High schools, Jorge Mas Canosa, Gulfstream, The Learning Experience and Booker T. Washington.
Another program, called We Can Sail, occurs every Saturday and has two parts, one group for children with disabilities and one without. The group for children without disabilities is made up of high school students who act as mentors.
"We put them through disability awareness, sailing, paddling, boating safety, and their job is to be a friend to the participant," Horgan said. "A lot of these kids fall within the autism spectrum and don't talk much. You need to figure out how to communicate, and what's interesting is that these high school kids figure it out."
Shake-A-Leg changes not only the lives of participants but also the lives of teachers, counselors, and others who help the program run smoothly. "It makes you see life with a different perspective," said Kiandra Rhaney, director of programs at Shake-A-Leg. "Sometimes it takes a week or two to teach them, but they learn it. It's the greatest satisfaction."
"It helps shape the direction that high school kids go in college," Horgan said. "They're able to articulate some personal development coming from a kid with a disability that's teaching them in a nontraditional way."
"I feel so blessed when I can see it in their eyes ... it sure is rewarding," said Craig Kirk, the weekend manager at Shake-A-Leg.
Shake-A-Leg strives to make life as seamless as possible, especially for those who are disabled. Buses pick up the children at their schools and bring them in, because transportation is often an issue, Horgan said.
"We believe that, specially with kids with autism or other intellectual disabilities, they need structure," he said. "They need to feel like they're a part and like they're equal."
This emphasis on stability and structure made the effects Hurricane Irma especially difficult. The storm wiped out several docks and boats owned by Shake-A-Leg, which delayed the reopening by three months. "The effects of the hurricane aren't just physical," Horgan started. "People are affected emotionally, especially kids with disabilities that are taken out of their routine."
A major aspect of Shake-A-Leg is environmental awareness. Children are learning through their experiences out on the bay, and are becoming enthusiastic about going back. "We are creating the environmental stewards of the future," Horgan said. "They're going home and talking to their parents about litter and animals and the weather, and they're learning it all from experience."
"Sailing in Biscayne Bay is a great experience," said 7-year-old Alejandro Rangel. "It's really fun, it's a great sport."
Shake-A-Leg is also the home of Impossible Dream, a 60-foot sailing catamaran that is fully wheelchair accessible.