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Diveheart: A Beacon for Adaptive Diving

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Ana Calvo shows off her perfect buoyance in Bonaire on a Diveheart Scuba Adventure Trip. Ana was born with no arms or legs, but with a little help from her Diveheart Adaptive Dive buddies and instructor, she was able to dive every dive site with the best of them

The world of scuba diving is inviting and expansive: while enveloped within the blue, scuba divers enjoy a realm unlike any other: a zone of serenity and calm that sweeps away worries and emboldens its practitioners. For disabled divers, adaptive divers, this world opens avenues previously unavailable: while under the waves, adaptive divers experience the freedom of weightlessness, and a heightened determination augmented by supportive buddies. Managing adaptive diving programs is no small feat, and requires students and instructors to go beyond their limitations. As scuba diving has evolved over the decades, training agencies, dive centers, non-profits, and individuals have joined together for this noble mission. Such is Diveheart: one of the most prolific adaptive diving organizations since 2001.

Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Diveheart

Diveheart is a 501(c)3 non-profit headquartered in Downers Grove, Illinois, in the Chicagoland area. The organization’s primary mission, according to founder and president Jim Elliot, is “to instill confidence, independence, and self-esteem in children, veterans, and others with disabilities” by utilizing “scuba therapy and other related activities.” Diveheart divers have worked closely with research departments of university medical centers, including John Hopkins and Duke University, to ascertain the benefits of adaptive diving.

“Very early on, we saw some benefits anecdotally. We saw people with autism respond amazingly to just being in the water – eliminating surface distractions and things like that,” says Elliot. “Individuals with chronic pain claimed they were pain free after 10 or 15 years.”

Training adaptive divers is paramount to Diveheart’s goals, and it does so in a way that is safe, effective, and overall helps instill students with confidence and agency. Diveheart uses a specialized training program to meet recipients’ specific needs and match them with appropriate mentors and teams. The Diveheart Scuba Experience is one tool in this endeavor, which mirrors Discover Scuba programs: introducing disabled people to scuba and its benefits for the first time in a safe, enclosed pool environment.

“[Training is] very rigorous,” says Elliot. “The certification we give the adaptive diver determines their team. If you have a spinal cord injury, are a quadriplegic, and can’t ascend or descend on your own – you can’t equalize – you would immediately get an advanced team. Based on the abilities of the adaptive diver, we form a team around them and that’s the certification they get.”

Jim Elliot fitting Diveheart student Triston

Beyond adaptive training, Diveheart also provides adaptive buddy and advanced courses, ensuring adaptive divers a safe, friendly, and well-trained support system. Diveheart instructor training is another element of its training regimen tailored for instructors who are already certified through scuba diving training agencies; meeting these demands requires the utmost aptitude in scuba diving and working with adaptive students. Seasoned instructor trainers head these training programs and are similarly tested through extensive criteria. Participants in instructor training often learn during Diveheart trips specially designed for them.

Elliott explains:

“We needed to create environments where instructors can build confidence and experience. We decided to build a trip training paradigm: going to Key Largo mainly and Cozumel. It’s total immersion training where they get in on a Saturday and meet the adaptive divers. We break up the boats based on individuals and abilities. The cool thing is that we’ll have morning dives with the adaptive divers, then we’ll have lunch in the afternoon, then training with the buddies. You really get to know people with disabilities, learn more about them, and all the nuance you don’t learn in a class.”

Training participants on all levels of the Diveheart strata is just one aspect of the organization’s overarching mission. Diveheart’s goals extend to the greater scuba diving industry via a program called Outreach and Education: where the organization inspires the industry to adopt similar training programs. Diveheart’s training style is designed to be flexible and inclusive, making it applicable to adaptive divers the world over.

Explains Elliot:

“Our training materials are all written in such a way that if an instructor in a part of the world that will never have the resources to come and train with us… he or she can read the book and can do the online training, and figure out how to work with individuals with disabilities. Instructors are adapting all the time… most instructors even without adaptive training can figure out someone with an amputation will be weighted differently.”

Jim Elliot equalizing a Diveheart student in Cozumel

Diveheart was incorporated in 2001 while Elliot was working for Chicago radio station WGN, but the program began to germinate in the ‘80s when he taught blind people how to ski: an act inspired by his oldest daughter’s struggles with blindness. He applied this program to a more universal and accessible sport, scuba, and Diveheart flourished from it.

“I saw that skiing turned peoples’ lives around, and I thought, ‘You can only ski at certain times of the year and certain places in the world.’ I had been diving since college – as a journalist, I thought I’d meet Jacques Cousteau! I fell in love with diving. It was like being an astronaut.” he says.

“I was thinking mainly of people with physical disabilities: get them out of their wheelchair and into the water; get them weighed properly; teach them how to stand up; and have them benefit from it. Intuitively, I’m thinking it has to help them from being sedentary in a wheelchair.”

Since Diveheart’s inception, it has trained over a thousand adaptive divers, buddies, and instructors. Diveheart has developed alliances over the years with organizations and dive centers, which have adopted its practices and guide adaptive divers to it. Several Diveheart teams operate throughout the world: from Oklahoma to Washington DC; from Los Angeles to Malaysia. The non-profit has participated in numerous scuba diving conventions, has worked with major training agencies and veterans’ administrations, and helps interested parties in fundraising.

Fellowship – a pillar of Diveheart’s mission

At the core of Diveheart’s mission are the many volunteers, instructors, helpers, and buddies who make it possible.

Diveheart board member Ron Rispoli was introduced to the organization at a conference in 2003 where he met with Elliot. Already a certified scuba explorer and working with a Chicago-area school for children with disabilities, Rispoli was intrigued by Diveheart’s mission.

“I dive. I work in a place for kids with disabilities. I run into a guy who teaches scuba to kids to disabilities and we have a pool,” recalls Rispoli. “I got to talking with him, I pitched the idea to my administration – they loved it! From 2003 until 2017 we were working with Diveheart to get my students with physical disabilities into the water so they could understand how scuba diving could impact their lives.”

Today, Rispoli works with Diveheart events and spreading the organization’s message; he has been engaged in numerous programs and projects.

He says:

“What I get a charge out of… my students who didn’t, for the most part, have an opportunity to do very much in life: now all of a sudden it’s, ‘Hey! Let’s go scuba diving!’ Once they realize they can do this, their whole world changes: ‘Just see what I did!’ A very small percentage of people in the world dive, and here you have kids with disabilities doing something 99 percent of the world doesn’t do.

“It changes their life. I’ve had kids go from wallflowers to being outgoing because it gives them so much confidence. I’ve seen that multiple times with multiple students. They thought, ‘What can I do?’ and they’ve got the scuba tank on their back; the mask on; they’re breathing through a regulator. It’s the greatest thing, and they realize they’re good at it!”

Diveheart Scuba Experience at Elgin IL YMCA

For Bill Bogan, Diveheart has been an opportunity to give back to adaptive scuba after the sport changed his life. A Diveheart mentor and board member, Bogan developed neuroblastoma, a cancer of the spine, at eight months old and is an incomplete paraplegic. Bogan started diving in 1991 through his local dive center, which offered Handicapped Scuba Association (HSA) certifications.

He states:

“I got involved with Diveheart because I love scuba diving and I found how much I benefited from learning how to do it. I knew there was a lot of costs involved with scuba equipment, paying for lessons, and all that other stuff. Diveheart was brought to me by a lady who worked at Shriner’s Hospital for Children, which is the hospital I went to my whole childhood. I said, ‘Sign me up! I’m in!” I knew what it meant to me to learn how to scuba dive and I wanted to help.”

Bogdan regularly participates in Diveheart Scuba Experiences by encouraging people to invite adaptive diving into their lives. Working with Diveheart for over 15 years to benefit others has been an impassioned goal for him.

“We talk about living life with a disability and getting them to try it in a nice closed pool setting where they can easily get comfortable,” he explains. “We talk about different types of equipment, living with a disability, and how to swim. Most people with disabilities are often fearful to get in the water because they feel they can’t.”

A reef ball displaying Diveheart

For Bogdan, his most thrilling memory working and diving along Diveheart was the organization’s trip to Cozumel in 2018. Alongside his wife, who is also a diver, he certified his 15-year-old daughter.

“To go on a family trip, and be a father with a disability, and have the opportunity to personally dive with your kid and get them into it: that by far, I’ll always cherish. It was a life changing experience for me. I don’t want to say sports are always inclusive for individuals with disabilities… our program is inclusive for anybody: people with or without disabilities.”

Looking forward, Diveheart is planning on a number of exotic dive trips throughout 2020, and is currently seeking a base of operations.

“We feel if we could have a destination, it will be a magnet for scuba therapy and research from around the world: people from university medical centers can get grants; we wouldn’t do research but would facilitate it [by] training [people] to dive and keep them safe in the water,” states Elliot.

Triston embarking into adaptive diving

Now reaching its 19th year, Diveheart has been a pinnacle for adaptive divine training around the world, and a beacon of freedom, perseverance, and camaraderie for thousands of scuba explorers, be they adaptive or not. Against many barriers and pitfalls, adaptive divers have surpassed their limitations, and have resurfaced with a renewed purpose and zest for exploration – alongside empathic buddies expertly trained to guide them along the path.

Rispoli shares:

“Scuba diving is a tool. Many activities can be adapted to someone with a disability so they can enjoy the same thing their counterparts without disabilities can enjoy doing. They can go rock climbing or martial arts from a wheelchair or mouth painting. There’s so many different things out there and we just happen to use scuba diving. If you get someone engaged in an activity they enjoy and adapt it to them, you’re going to see a world of change in who that person is and how they look at life. It brings out the best in people.”

Bogan concludes:

“It’s always been about trying to help people with disabilities gain self-confidence. We always talk about the ‘yes I can’ spirit but to gain self-confidence through scuba diving, and using that to apply in their everyday life. If you’re Johnny the scuba diver, there’s no reason you can’t become Johnny the CEO of a company or use those experiences in your life to further your independence; your community involvement; your career. Wherever your desires are, you can use that in your everyday life.”

For more details on Diveheart, including upcoming programs and events, as well as its training programs, visit www.diveheart.org.