Swim Like a Dolphin


A life-changing and life-saving organization

By Sue Baldani

When Beth Scruggs, an avid swimmer, was asked to help a child with Down Syndrome improve her swimming skills in order to compete in the Special Olympics, she was glad to help.  But she didn’t stop there. Today, the Nashville Dolphins, an organization she started in 2003, has over 215 participants.

“The leading cause of death for people with special needs is drowning, so it’s really important for them to learn how to swim,” said Brenda Vroon, Program Director and Head Swim Coach.

Brenda got involved with the Nashville Dolphins about 10 years ago. She is a physical education teacher and also the Wildwood Gators swim coach. The Gators, which has some swimmers with Down Syndrome, hold Swim-A-Thons to raise money for the Dolphins. During these Swim-A-Thons, swimmers ask family members, friends, and neighbors for pledges, and depending on how many laps they do, money is raised to support the Nashville Dolphins.

According to Brenda, there are no other programs like it in the country. Whereas most programs for people with disabilities end when they turn 18, no one ages out of the Dolphins. Right now, the youngest child is only 2 and the oldest is 52. The person who Beth initially helped all those years ago is still in the program.

Brenda said she is always surprised when parents tell her that no one is willing to teach their children with disabilities how to swim. Swimming is not only a life-long sport, and one that will keep them safe, but it’s also great exercise. In addition, the Nashville Dolphins programs provide a peer group where people with disabilities can feel like they are a part of something.

“It’s really nice for kids to get out there and be with others like themselves and have that camaraderie,” said Brenda.

Their mission is to provide those with special needs the physical and emotional benefits of swimming. They accept people of all ages, abilities, and financial backgrounds, and participation in the Nashville Dolphins is completely free. They will even purchase a swimsuit for a participant, if necessary.

“Parents of  special needs children have so many costs, from medical bills to therapy programs,” said Brenda. “Our program is totally free.  We never have charged, and we never will charge. That’s part of our mission – to provide free swim lessons.”

They have about 65 swimmers on their Dolphin Swim Team, while most of the other swimmers are in the Junior Dolphins. There is also a “learn to swim” program called Future Dolphins.

The ultimate goal, said Brenda, is for most of the swimmers to get to the point where they will be on the Dolphin Swim Team. Some of these swimmers go on to compete in Special Olympic competitions. There are some members with serious disabilities who will not be able to reach that goal; however, they never have to leave the program.

“People love it. They love the friendships, they love the volunteers, and they develop great bonds and learn teamwork,” she said.

Brenda said there aren’t any disabilities that would preclude someone from taking part in the Nashville Dolphin’s programs. Participants include people in wheelchairs, those who are blind or deaf, and others with a variety of disabilities. Some have prior swimming skills while others are absolute beginners.

Since they don’t have their own facility, their greatest challenge is finding pool space. Because of this, they do have a wait list, so unfortunately not everyone who wants to take part can do so. If they had more pool space, she said, they would be able to accept more people.

“We have been trying to raise capital to build a pool, which would be life changing, but right now we are in many indoor pools throughout the community,” said Brenda.

Some of these include the Gordon Jewish Community Center, Ensworth High School, the University School of Nashville, and the Centennial Sportsplex.

“Wherever people will give us pool space, that’s where we go,” said Brenda.

While their ultimate goal is to be able to build their own indoor pool facility, for now they would really like to get people off their wait lists and into the water. Swimming is what they’re all about.

“It’s sad that we have so many people on our wait list. We are open to any size indoor pool,” she said.

The Nashville Dolphins holds many fundraisers throughout the year. Their Boots and Bubbles fundraiser, which is a big crawfish boil, is usually held in May or June. This year, because of COVID-19, they had to get creative and do a drive-through event with live music and punch. It was a great success, and they ended up cooking over 2100 pounds of crawfish. They also hold a mum sale in September, and host an event called Soundwaves and Sweethearts every February. It’s a big party with a band, with liquor that is usually donated. Brenda said it’s a really fun event, and guests really enjoy themselves.

In the past couple of years, swim teams in Williamson County and the National Swim League have jumped on the Wildwood fundraising bandwagon and have done their own Swim-a-Thons to raise money for the Dolphins. This summer, four swim teams are taking part.

In addition, the Nashville Dolphins recently participated in a fundraiser called the Big Payback. It’s a huge fundraiser for Middle Tennessee where different nonprofits try to raise money.

“Because we felt like we had to give back to Nashville, we just presented a check to The Store, which is a free grocery store started by Brad Paisley and Kimberly Williams- Paisley in Belmont,” said Brenda. “We gave them half of our ticket sales and presented a check for $8700.00.”

The National Dolphins is staffed by over 150 volunteers, who come from all over the state. Volunteers don’t have to have any swimming background, and they need people both in and out of the water. If people are interested in volunteering, they can go to their website http://nashvilledolphins.org/ and fill out the application. There is even a video showing what volunteers can expect.

“We have lead instructors who help the volunteers, so they just have to have a willing spirit and an open mind,” said Brenda.

If an organization has an indoor pool and would like to donate space, please reach out to the Nashville Dolphins by phone at 615-866-9971, by e-mail at info@nashvilledolphins.org, or on their website at  http://nashvilledolphins.org/. Or, if a corporation or individual would like to donate funds, please click the “Donate” button located on their website. Since members never age out, the financial needs continue to grow every year. Besides the website, information and personal stories about the Nashville Dolphins can also be found on Facebook and Instagram.

“There are so many things that this program does, and I wish more people knew about it,” said Brenda.

Pull quote: “The leading cause of death for people with special needs is drowning, so it’s really important for them to learn how to swim.”

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Brentwood, TN.


Healing Our Heroes


How horses are bringing hope to those who give their all

By Susan Baldani

Many of our veterans have a hard time transitioning back into civilian life. Suicide and divorce rates are high, and traditional therapies are not always successful when dealing with their unique issues.

Jennifer O’Neill, the long-time actress, model and author, set out to help these heroes. In 2010, she started Hope & Healing at Hillenglade, an equine-assisted program for veterans (and first responders) that teaches them new ways of coping with a myriad of issues. Steven DePalma, her partner with Hope & Healing, has served in Afghanistan.

“There’s something very special about warrior to warrior conversations,” she said.

All programs take place on her farm, located right outside of downtown Nashville. Veterans often come to Hillenglade from Fort Campbell, as well as  organizations such as Operation Stand Down and Wounded Warriors.

“We have served over 4000 military and first responders and their families,” she said.

O’Neill believes that it’s not enough just to work with the veteran or first responder; you also have to work with their families.

“We are intent on dealing with the entire family unit,” she said. “You can’t deal with one person and not look at the trickle-down effect.”

When participants arrive, they meet with O’Neill and/or DePalma and get to know each other. This exchange helps to ascertain the specific needs of the veterans and first responders. Once that’s done, they will begin to interact with the horses.

“It’s so interesting to see what happens, because it varies with the person and with the horse,” she said. “For instance, knowing our horses and knowing our guests, we can partner them with a specific horse that will work on their specific issues.”

Horses, she said, are flight animals. Their instinct is to check you out to see if you’re going to hurt them.

“Our program is not about riding; it’s all about ground work,” said O’Neill. “Horses have 17 expressions, so it’s interesting to see these men and women warriors who come in perhaps feeling distant, and develop a trusting relationship with our horses.”

What happens, she said, is this beautiful dance between the person in the pen and the horse. During this time, the horse is loose – or at liberty – and by using specialized exercises, O’Neill and DePalma help to create a relationship between the two.

“When a horse, this 1200-pound animal, comes to them by its own volition and willingness to want to partner and have a relationship with them, you just see these amazing heroes just break down and completely respond.”

Many times, she said, participants don’t realize they’re presenting with anger, or coldness, or acting threatening.

“Horses are our mirrors, and with their 17 different expressions, they can show what they think of us pretty easily,” said O’Neill. “God was in a good mood when he made a horse.”

Initially, Hillenglade Hope & Healing hosted large celebrations where veterans, first responders, and their families could get away in the country and be around the wonder of therapy horses. However, when they were finally able to build a covered pen a couple of years ago, they got into deeper healing programs.

“That has been a real blessing,” she said. “It’s very difficult to start to do deeper healing and say ‘Well, I’ll see you in the spring,’ or ‘The weather’s not going to be good this month.’ Now, we have groups come down for three-day deeper healing events.”

Once participants have gone through their program, O’Neill and DePalma will then have them talk about what they’ve learned and experienced at the farm and how they can take that home to their families and friends and to their work environment. If requested, they will also work in concert with certified counselors in more traditional therapies.

Hillenglade Hope & Healing also offers an Empowerment Transition Program. This program provides veterans  a place to stay on the farm for three to six months, while they work through their issues. During this time, they work on the farm daily with the horses and learn how to care for them. Once they graduate, they can then get a job in the equine world.

O’Neill would like to expand Hillenglade’s offerings, but it’s been very difficult lately for many 501(c)(3) organizations. Because all of their programs are free for the veterans, first responders, and their families, their financial needs are great.

“We’re just hoping that people recognize the importance of  this program and help us to keep doing this,” she said. “These days, there’s a lot of need everywhere, but this is not frivolous. This is lifesaving.”

To donate, please go to their website at http://hillenglade.org/. They also need hard-working volunteers who are willing to groom horses, clean stalls, paint fences, and prepare for events. If you can help, please contact them for more information.

Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Brentwood, TN.

Head to the shore, soak up some sun, and then go shopping


By Susan Baldani

With the warm weather coming, many of us will soon be heading to the beach. Soaking up the sun, splashing in the waves, and reading a book are great ways to spend a summer day. But, look around, and you will see there are many other things to do to have a great time while there, which allows you to support local businesses at the same time.

Many shore communities have small, often family-owned shops filled with unique and high-quality items that you may not be able to find closer to home. Candle stores, yarn shops, baby boutiques, and stationery stores are usually steps away from the sand and surf. Take some time to visit, say hello to the proprietors, and pick up some items to treat yourself, or to give as special presents for someone’s birthday or anniversary.

Sand, saltwater, and sun can also wreak havoc on your nails and skin. Stop in a local salon or spa and let yourself be pampered with a mani-pedi and facial. You will come back from the beach not only with a tan, but with lovely nails and glowing, vibrant skin as well.

Looking for something with a little more action? How about a game of mini golf or getting soaked at a water park? What kid (or adult) doesn’t enjoy getting a hole in one or gliding down a slide on an inner tube? Much more exciting than just lying on the beach.

Craving a bite to eat? Instead of bringing your own food in a cooler each time, check out what the local delis and mom-and-pop restaurants have to offer. Some of the best food can be found at the shore.  Tear into a lamb or chicken gyro or indulge in a creamy seafood pasta dish. And whatever you do, don’t forget dessert. Enjoy a delicious ice cream cone with sprinkles, funnel cake with powdered sugar, or a generous slice of home-made apple pie with a fresh dollop of whipped cream.

Quite a few of these treasured establishments rely on summer visitors to get through the entire year. Many of these places have been around for years and are considered the backbones of their shore communities.

Be sure to patronize these local shops and take advantage of all they have to offer so they can continue to flourish for many more years to come. And then, head back to your towel on the beach and take a long nap under the umbrella. Happy summer!

Written for the Country Register, published across the U.S. and Canada.

A Pet Pig Tale


From farm animal to family member

By Susan Baldani

Atticus, named for the noble Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, is a 400-pound pet pig who loves watermelon, pumpkins, and carrots. He also enjoys getting lots of love and attention from his humans.

His owner Jaime and her 5-year-old son live on 1.5 acres in Williamson County. Along with his two dog siblings George Clooney and Merci, cat sister Kiki, and goldfish Goldie, Atticus is a beloved member of the family.

“I love animals, and even though I’m originally a city girl, I’ve always loved farm animals,” said Jaime.

After she saw an ad for pet pigs, her interest was piqued. A friend introduced her to someone who had pet pigs so she could learn more about them.

When a family friend’s pig had a litter of piglets, Jaime went out and met Atticus and his parents so she could see how big he was really going to be.

“I waited until Atticus was 3 months old and 22 pounds before I brought him home,” she said. “Now, he’s 7 ½ years old and 400 pounds.”

Jaime said pigs can live 15 to 20 years, so it’s a big commitment. Just like with any other pet, it’s important to do your research before adopting.

“Atticus is a Vietnamese potbellied pig and at 400 pounds is considered mini,” said Jaime. “This is why so many pigs need to be rescued; there is no such thing as a teacup pig. Those are babies and then they get big. Adopting a pig is not something to do on a whim.”

Getting Atticus was the right decision for her and her family. Since she did her research, Jaime was well prepared for the care and responsibility of owning a pig.

“He’s super sweet to my son, and of course, I’m his mommy, so he loves me,” she said. “Pigs have the intelligence of 2-to-3-year-old children, and they’re stubborn, so you have to earn their love and attention. Sometimes he runs to you for scratches and other times he’ll stand 3 feet from you and grunt at you, expecting you to come to him.”

Jaime also mentioned that pigs are highly intelligent. She taught Atticus to sit down and turn around in less than 5 minutes. Of course, it was all food motivated. And Atticus, like most pigs, is extremely sensitive, so if you yell, you can hurt his feelings. She said he also holds grudges.

Not one for toys, Atticus instead prefers to nose around the property. He has a special designated area in her backyard, with a sturdy pig house about the size of a large doghouse, and a lovely fenced in back yard. He lives mainly outside, but will come in when it’s very cold or really hot, or when the lawn is being mown.

Jaime puts down hay throughout his pen, which is about 30’ x 30’, and Atticus also has access to the screened-in back porch. He doesn’t like to go for walks; he would rather just hang out in the yard.  And like a true pig, he likes to root around his pen.

“You want to keep them busy since they’re like toddlers, so I’ll sprinkle grapes or Cheerios throughout his pen, and he likes to find them,” she said. “I try to keep [the snacks] low in sugar.”

Like most other pets, Atticus takes naps during the day. Around 7:00 p.m., when he usually goes to sleep, he’ll retreat into his pig house or lie in front of it. In the morning, if Jaime isn’t awake by 8:30 a.m., he bangs on the back door, looking for his breakfast.

His vet comes to the house twice a year and the only maintenance he really needs, Jaime said, is to get his hooves trimmed. And since he’s a boy, his tusk also has to be tended to.

Besides pig food, which she soaks in water to ensure he stays hydrated, he also gets healthy scraps.

“My next-door neighbor is in love with Atticus, thank you Lord, because you always want your neighbors to love your pet, especially when it’s a pig. So, she brings him her leftover watermelon and carrots. All the neighbors actually love Atticus.”

If you’re thinking about adopting a pig, besides doing your research, Jaime recommends seeking out a reputable, local rescue organization and support the people who are out there every day rescuing animals. Also, be sure to check your town’s ordinances and/or your homeowner’s association’s regulations, since some places may not allow pet pigs.

Written for Franklin Lifestyle magazine in Franklin, TN.