Paul Zanelli has been a volunteer fireman and EMT for over 35 years. He’s a husband, a father and, after crushing his right foot during a home project and spending 33 days confined to a hospital bed, an amputee.
But missing part of a limb hasn’t made him less of a husband, a father… or a traveler.
“When I opened my eyes on the morning of December 23, 2016, minus a leg, I looked up at the hospital room TV to see a one-legged superstar running a Spartan race. It was like God was trying to show me a new world of possibilities,” commented Zanelli.
Zanelli spent Christmas in the hospital with his family and friends.
“So many people came to visit,” he shared. “But as much joy as that brought to me, it was hard seeing the pain and sorrow in their eyes. But I was out of pain! I was going to be OK! I did not need them to feel sorry for me. I became determined to stay strong and lead a normal life.”
He returned home from the hospital on December 27 and, with equal measures of hope and fear, he literally and figuratively set his mind to next steps. That was when he received a call from Margo Peyton, owner of Kids Sea Camp.
“She was one of the first people to reach out to me. And it was the start of a new and wonderful relationship with her, my family and diving.”
Zanelli had met Peyton and her husband Tom the year before at Kids Sea Camp (KSC) in Roatan, Honduras. The trip had been a dream come true for Zanelli and his family.
“My wife Cindy and I were avid divers for over a decade, but after having children, dive trips were replaced with Disney and water parks. Then we stumbled upon KSC when the kids turned 10 and wanted to dive too. In Roatan, Cindy and I dove and made friends with other adults, while the kids were getting certified and making friends of their own. It felt great for all of us to finally be diving together,” reminisced Zanelli.
The family diving experience was so positive that, determined to make diving a big part of their lives, the Zanellis had booked another KSC trip to Dominica to coincide with spring break in 2017.
But that was all cast in doubt. While lying in the hospital bed in December, Zanelli was told by his doctors that there was no way he would be diving in April.
“It was only four months away, so I sadly told my wife to cancel our family vacation, and in perfect Cindy form, she said NO! Keeping that trip scheduled was one of the best decisions ever,” recalled Zanelli. “My family needed that trip and so did I. I wanted to show my kids (and myself) that life would be as good as or better than before. And what made it all come together was that unexpected call from Margo.”
“I met the Zanellis on our KSC week in Roatan last year,” remarked Peyton. “Paul is a big-hearted and fun guy, full of life and always ready for an adventure. So when I saw the news on Facebook about the accident, something inside me just knew that I had to get him back in the water. And Buddy Dive Dominica was the perfect business partner to get Paul diving again. I asked for a special instructor – no issues! I asked for additional dive guides – no problem!”
“She even arranged land excursions that ensured no far walks for me or a path where I could be driven to the top of a fort or waterfalls,” said Zanelli.
To top it all off, Peyton purchased Zanelli a SubGravity underwater scooter through her Ocean Wishes Foundation. The scooter was small, compact and easy to use with one arm or two, providing valuable assistance to Zanelli if he ever got tired. It also promised to be a lot of fun.
“Margo loves challenges and is one of the most loving people I have ever met,” said Zanelli. “She proudly proclaimed, ‘Paul, we got this!’ ”
And with that she inspired Zanelli to start getting back into shape and not give up on his family’s dream dive trip to Dominica.
“Every now and again you just have to go the extra mile to help a client. And Paul is not your normal client. He has become part of our family. So when I saw him walking up to me in person at the Beneath the Sea dive show in New Jersey in March, I knew I had to do everything I could to get him back in the water.”
The Zanelli family arrived in Dominica just four months after Paul’s surgery. He was walking on his new prosthetic, carrying the SubGravity underwater scooter and had his Aqualeg (a special swim prosthesis with a flexible, locking foot), provided by Next Step Orthopedics, strapped to his backpack.
In Dominica, with the Fort Young Hotel located right on the water and a room looking out to the ocean, the Zanellis settled in. Buddy Dive, the Kids Sea Camp partners in Dominica, were ready and waiting for them too. Zanelli spent his first full day getting comfortable diving – trying out his new Aqualeg and learning to use his new dive gear.
After that, “Jumping off the dock for a checkout dive was the greatest feeling in the world,” enthused Zanelli. “I cannot describe the freedom and joy I felt getting back in the water and descending to depth. Diving again! After my awesome check-out dive, it was game on!”
Most important of all, Zanelli was there was his family, a circle that had grown to include new friends like the Whites and, of course, the Peytons.
“Last year in Roatan, we were fortunate to have met Jay and Lisa White and their boys,” explained Zanelli. “We reconnected with them again in Dominica. They brought an extra scooter and a shared passion for hunting lionfish. Cindy, Lisa and Margo were focusing on underwater photography, and the kids were scootering around together and having a blast. Life was great again!”
As Buddy Dive in Dominica accommodates every level of diver, it was easy for all of the Zanellis and Whites to keep busy. Plus the Peytons and Kids Sea Camp always put safety first and that made their trip stress free.
“We enjoyed diving with adults on our own boats in the mornings, and then dove as a family every afternoon. We had fun looking for sperm whales and I even jumped off the top of the Buddy Express boat with all the kids! My kids, Abbie and Jaz, took a digital photography class with Margo and shot some amazing underwater images. We ate fresh lionfish fritters and ceviche each night,” said Zanelli.
“It was just what my soul needed, and all made possible by Next Step Orthopedics and Kids Sea Camp’s ‘We got this’ mentality. It was hard to say goodbye, but we are busy planning our next Kids Sea Camp trip!”
This story was previously published on our partner, Family Travel Association, website. Written by Ethan Gelber, you can learn more about Kids Sea Camp and other inspiring stories of travel here.