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October 21, 2014

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The gift of the dolphins: Foundation gives children with terminal illnesses a reason to smile

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Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun

Two-year-old Joshua Cota shows his mom, Marixa, the dolphins during a Great Escape outing hosted by Northwestern Mutual benefiting Starlight Children’s Foundation for those who have pediatric cancer at the Mirage’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat on Saturday, May 11, 2012.

A Great Escape

Ten-year-old Hannah smiles as the dolphins splash in the water during a Great Escape outing hosted by Northwestern Mutual benefiting Starlight Children's Foundation for those who have pediatric cancer at The Mirage's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat on Saturday, May 11, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Marixa Cota held her son Joshua as they walked with other families through the palm-tree-lined confines of Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage Saturday.

They marveled at splashing dolphins, sleeping lions and a pacing shadow leopard -- perhaps it was preening for visitors, or just waiting for his lunch. Joshua acted like any 2-year-old would: He giggled, reached over a ledge to touch baby dolphins, made animal sounds -- and then became completely absorbed with a crayon.

Cota and her husband, Arturo, beamed at their son and his wavy mop of black hair. One year ago, this day would’ve been spent in a hospital room as Joshua received treatment for leukemia. Instead, this was his day, and the day of about five other kids just like him.

The Cotas were a part of Northwestern Mutual’s Great Escape, an event for seriously ill children in the Starlight Children’s Foundation and their families. The day offered families a chance to leave behind the hospitals, chemotherapy and doctors for an afternoon in the world of dolphins, lions and tigers.

“This day is all about the kids. If we can bring a big giant smile to the kids’ faces we have accomplished our mission,” said Chau Le, chief operating officer of Northwestern Mutual’s Los Angeles branch. “It’s a way for them and their peers who are also undergoing treatment for a serious condition to be able to bond…and just relax and enjoy in an atmosphere of relaxation.”

This is the first year Northwestern Mutual’s Las Vegas branch has hosted a Great Escape. The event is part of a nationwide partnership with the nonprofit Starlight Children’s Foundation and focuses on giving children with serious illnesses or who have overcome serious illnesses and their families a chance to have fun.

The day included a tour through the secret garden, a visit with the dolphins, face painting from a mermaid and pizza and ice cream. Starlight vice president Dvorah Waldman said events like Great Escape are important for a child’s recovery.

“Great Escape allows the kids and the family a chance to just have a good time,” Waldman said. “Oftentimes when (children are) happier, research shows, they’re more compliant with their treatment and are in much better health.”

Lorenzo DiSalvo said he tries to take his 5-year-old son DeMetrio and his sisters to as many events like Saturday’s as he can. DeMetrio was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 4 years old, and receives treatment once a week.

On Saturday, DeMetrio spent the day gawking at the animals. His favorite part was the tigers. Lorenzo DiSalvo said events like Saturday are not only fun but also offer encouragement and perspective.

“We like to do all these little things so he can see other kids are in the same boat as him,” Lorenzo DiSalvo said. “So he knows he’s not the only one … to see that cancer doesn’t always lead to death.”

For the Cota family, the afternoon felt like a dream.

A year and a half ago, Joshua was diagnosed with acute lymphomblastic leukemia before it progressed into mixed-lineage leukemia. He was given a 50/50 chance of surviving.

Marixa Cota prayed. Arturo Cota prayed. Their church prayed. Even people in Puerto Rico who saw Marixa Cota’s Facebook posts about Joshua prayed. Joshua underwent chemo treatments for three or four days at a time each week; they occasionally left burns on his mouth or rear end.

“It was tough. We’d be at the hospital all day, and sometimes didn’t sleep,” Arturo Cota said. “When (Marixa) first heard the news, she almost fell in shock.”

One year ago, they never would’ve been able to take Joshua to an event like Saturday’s. Now the leukemia is in remission. He still has a routine of pills and steroids, but it has been less stressful, Arturo Cota said.

For Arturo and Marixa Cota, a normal afternoon spent with Joshua among the sleeping lions and playful dolphins has been a dream come true.

“Seeing him with long hair is a blessing from God,” Arturo and Marixa Cota said. “Watching him around here, free and happy, not sick - God is awesome.”

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