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Dream of becoming a mermaid helped girl, 7, bounce back from leukemia

Legs pressed tightly together, 7-year-old Amelia Collins stood at the edge of her grandparents' pool and smiled.

Then, the Ocala girl with the brunette, Shirley Temple curls screamed, "I have my fins back," and jumped into the water.

Without separating her legs, she swam by whipping her lower body up and down like a mermaid.

"She's always wanted to be a mermaid," said her mother, Kathryn Collins. "It's her dream."

The unique movement also helped Amelia recover from the damage caused by the chemotherapy treatments she received to help fend off leukemia. Swimming like a mermaid rebuilt her muscles.

Now, it has helped her dream come true.

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With assistance from the Tampa nonprofit Makers United for Children's Hope, or the MUCH Foundation, Amelia donned a finned tail Saturday and swam with the iconic mermaids at Hernando County's Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

"She was twisting and twirling underwater with no effort," said Zachary Hurst, founder of the MUCH Foundation, which works to bring fantasy to life for sick children. "She didn't look like she was pretending. She was a mermaid."

Kids at the Weeki Wachee summer camp get to swim with the mermaids. So do other sick kids.

But Amelia stands out, Weeki Wachee spokesman John Athanason said.

"Sometimes kids who swim with the mermaids get a little overwhelmed by the vastness and coldness of the springs," Athanason said. "That little girl had no fear whatsoever. The moment she got in the spring she was a mermaid."

Amelia didn't know it, but she had been training for her immersion into the sisterhood of mythical sea creatures.

Starting at age 2, she'd press her legs together in the tub and declare she had fins.

And when she learned to swim, she began copying the mermaid style.

Then two years ago, she began to feel constant pain in her legs.

She was diagnosed in July 2015 with leukemia, a cancer of the body's blood-forming tissues, including bone marrow and the lymphatic system. Age 5 at the time, she was given just a 41 percent chance of surviving another five years.

Amelia underwent chemotherapy for the disease and it caused her muscles atrophy, Collins said. Walking became difficult and there was concern that without exercise, her bone density wouldn't develop properly.

So in May, the family turned to the pool, hoping the weightlessness there would reduce the stress on Amelia's body.

It worked.

Amelia swam with joy like a mermaid, a motion that's also great for strengthening the body's core.

The Weeki Wachee opportunity came up by chance.

While at an Ocala literacy event, Amelia began playing with a hula hoop near the booth of the Literacy Council of Marion County.

Chatting with the council's program assistant, Yamila Acosta, Amelia mentioned her cancer.

"She had been through so much and still had this attitude that could light up a room," Acosta said. "She amazed me and I decided I wanted to do whatever possible to make her wishes come true."

Acosta is also a project coordinator of Heartlezz Ryderz, an Ocala motorcycle and auto club that helps families in need.

Some of its members recently assisted Hurst's MUCH Foundation in building a cave in Clearwater so a boy who recently had a brain cyst removed could spend time with Batman.

They reached out to Hurst about Amelia and he called Weeki Wachee.

"I can't believe how many people worked to do this for my daughter," Collins said, fighting back sobs. "It restores my faith in people."

Amelia may never again have a natural gait to her walk or play active sports like many kids her age, Collins said.

But her cancer is in remission.

"I will not take any moment with her for granted," Collins said.

"And she now says, 'Mom, everyone should dream big because you never know. It could come true.'"

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

 
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