Nine-year-old Sophia Banger from Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire, recently had her wish of a lifetime to meet Winter the Dolphin, the star of Dolphin’s Tale, and swim with dolphins in Florida granted by Starlight Children’s Foundation, the UK’s leading wish granting charity for children with serious and terminal illnesses.
When she was very little, Sophia was diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy. As a result of her condition, Sophia has very limited use of her lower body and is wheelchair bound. She has to perform grueling daily physio exercises and also requires regular botox injections, which are used to help relax the muscles in her legs. Mum Stephanie describes Sophia as, “a very happy little girl, despite the every day struggles she faces.”
Like many of her friends, Sophia is a massive Justin Bieber fan, who loves listening to his music. She also loves dolphins and, since watching Dolphin Tale in the cinema, Sophia has been fascinated by the story and is always trying to find out more about Winter, the very special dolphin who lost her tale after becoming entangled with a rope attached to a crab trap. Winter was fitted with a prosthetic tale and, because she regularly has botox injections in her legs, and struggles to move her legs, Sophia feels a great closeness to Winter and her story. It came as no surprise, therefore, that when Sophia was referred to Starlight for a wish, she asked to go to Orlando, Florida to meet her favourite dolphin!
To make Sophia’s wish come true, the charity arranged a trip-of-a-lifetime for Sophia and her parents, Nicholas and Stephanie, and her brother Harvey, aged 11, at the end of March. Sophia and her family flew to Orlando, they were all very excited about the trip and Sophia couldn’t believe that she was really going to meet Winter and some of her friends! Starlight had arranged for Sophia to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see Winter and the experience didn’t disappoint… according to mum Stephanie, Sophia was completely ‘blown away’ when she first saw Winter! Whilst they were there, a film crew was taking the final close-ups of Winter for the sequel to Dolphin Tale and so Sophia and her family were able to be on set, which was amazing!
The charity had also organised a trip to Discovery Cove, which is world-renowned for the wonderful experiences it offers families wishing to swim with dolphins. Sophia didn’t sleep the night before she was so excited and, once she met Dexter the Dolphin, she didn’t want to leave!
The team at Discovery Cove allowed Sophia to keep her own floats on with their buoyancy aid so that she felt really comfortable, and it meant that she actually swam out to the trainer in the water all by herself! She was so excited to go and swim with Dexter the Dolphin after having touched him and played with him in the group.
During their stay, the family also enjoyed some of the local attractions, including the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral. They had a memorable day doing the tour of the centre, which was really interesting. Both Sophia and Harvey were completely fixed on each detail, enjoying the movie there about the International Space Station, and then getting to see the actual Apollo space shuttle.
After the wish, Sophia’s mum Stephanie said:
“The whole experience was one we will never forget. It was quite emotional for us parents to see her so close and touching a dolphin, she didn’t want it to end! It really was the trip of a lifetime, and one that Sophia will carry through life with the fondest of memories. We can’t thank Starlight enough for making her dream come true… AND MORE! She’s been through so much the past three years and so to see her smile the way she has done since we arrived in Orlando, has been quite overwhelming. Thank you Starlight so very much for absolutely everything!”
To find out more about the Starlight Children’s Foundation, or to make a donation click here