Home Get Involved! S.A.F.E.: A Helping Hand to the Underwater Experience

S.A.F.E.: A Helping Hand to the Underwater Experience

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Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Dale Kleier

With advances in scuba diving technology and training procedures, adaptive diving – scuba for individuals with disabilities – has become a cornerstone for certification agencies and dive centers the world over. Empowered by a weightless, calming world, adaptive divers are granted a level of freedom, independence, and fellowship they may not be able to experience topside. Making waves in adaptive diving training in the Pacific Northwest is Scuba Access For Everyone (S.A.F.E.): a project developed by seasoned scuba diver and instructor Dale Kleier.

S.A.F.E. is a non-profit organization connected to and named after Scuba Adventures for Everyone, LLC (SAFE), a PADI dive center owned and operated by Kleier and located in Hillsboro, Oregon. The center is equipped with a private classroom and large pool facility specifically designed to accommodate adaptive divers with specific needs: people with PTSD or on the autism spectrum; amputees and people assisted with wheelchairs.

Kleier expounds on the origins of S.A.F.E. and the beneficial effects of scuba diving for disabled people:

“When I was teaching diving one of my main focuses was a marine who started diving with us – he called myself and my wife his ‘dive parents’ for a long time. He came back from Afghanistan and was going to school. We probably dove together 10 or 12 times. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes and how scared he was: it really caught me off guard because he was scared for me: he was having terrible nightmares. His job was to report casualties, and he got hurt and lost 24 close friends. He opened up and shared to me what diving did for him. Underwater it was quiet, and he didn’t have to worry about anyone. It was therapeutic for him. Another marine had a traumatic brain injury and had terrible headaches and pains: diving alleviated that.

“I started talking to fellow divers, telling them my mission. It wasn’t just for veterans, thinking further out… taking someone who’s been in a wheelchair all their life, getting them to zero gravity and out of the chair. At 10 feet off the bottom, they’re neutral, looking at everything going around and seeing the same things. It’s not only therapeutic but we get to socialize together and that’s what a big part of this is: not just getting certified but keeping them together as a community: going on dive trips and having events with them. Being a part of a family is where my vision and goal is.”

Kleier began working alongside his fellow divers and members of the local community, gathering opinions and thoughts on how to go about creating an adaptive diving non-profit; from his observations, everyone he interacted with knew a disabled person. Soon after, he sought a dive certification agency and met with Diveheart®, an iconic adaptive diving training program, which according to its website, “works to build confidence, independence and self-esteem in children, adults and veterans of all abilities through scuba diving, scuba therapy and related activities.”

S.A.F.E. Student

“I was looking for two things: places for [students] to go dive and the training,” Kleier explains. “I needed to understand the training – these peoples’ lives are in my and my dive buddy’s hands. Jim [Diveheart® founder Jim Elliott] has an intense training: I had five students going through it, and after the first two days of training in the pool, some of them were thinking of dive masters. I told them this is more intense as far as the skills are concerned.”

The relationship cemented. In preparation, Kleier took training courses on adaptive diving and participated in a Diveheart® trip at Cozumel; this experience gave him the necessary tools to work with people with different disabilities.

“It was an awesome experience that concreted everything I believe in,” expresses Kleier. “And now we’re off and running! We started a board of divers and looked for strong-willed people with a passion for diving. Everyone is signed up now for the advanced buddy dive and by the end of August they’ll come back certified. I have people waiting for us to get it going and we’re right there.”

Today, S.A.F.E. offers three levels of training through Diveheart®: Dive Buddy, Advanced Dive Buddy, and Instructor.

Key to S.A.F.E. and its Diveheart® regimen is empathy training: a crucial tool for instructors to understand, to a degree, the hindrances facing disabled people. For example, an instructor may wear a mask obscured with black tape and learn how to assemble gear in total darkness to better teach a blind student; through land clinics, instructors will move in wheelchairs throughout the day and learn the challenges of using a boat ramp.

S.A.F.E. Student learns new skills

“It makes you slow down to understand they’re working twice as hard as you or I,” says Kleier.” They’re having to do rescue breathing as an amputee – to only have one arm to get across the water. It’s to build the confidence of our team and they do a really good job. It’s hard and long but it’s rewarding.”

S.A.F.E. is funded through sales, three percent of every purchase, from its titular dive center, and from fundraising events and programs. This year, the non-profit conducted an open house and silent auction, and with the help of S.A.F.E. board members, secured donation matching from prominent U.S. companies. As the non-profit continues to grow, Kleier and company are focusing on grassroots efforts to get people engaged and are currently working on grant proposals for devices such as beach-friendly wheelchairs.

“We’re trying all avenues and they’ve been well received,” he says. “We’re going to see how it pans out. That’s the hard part.”

S.A.F.E. is currently looking for dive buddies and students throughout the Pacific Northwest, and Kleier is interested in speaking at dive club engagements and scuba events. Eventually, he strives to train instructors at other dive shops and better prepare them for adaptive divers.

For more information on S.A.F.E., visit www.safescuba.net/non-profit.