After Jim Elliott helped his blind daughter learn to ski, he was so inspired by her new skills and free spirit that he ultimately decided to focus his life’s work on helping people with disabilities. “You can only ski in certain times of the year in certain places of the world,” he came to realize, “but imagine what diving can do!” Scuba diving would be just the ticket for empowerment. Elliott had fallen in love with it during college but put dives on the back burner during years of career and family commitments.
By 1996 Elliott already had swapped his six-figure income from a career in advertising and marketing at a TV station for volunteer work. Then in 2001, acting on the epiphany related to his daughter’s skiing, he established a nonprofit whose volunteers teach scuba diving to children and adults with disabilities. Its name hails from the movie Braveheart. Elliott thinks of it this way: Diveheart’s a cool name, and if people made a mistake and called us Braveheart by accident, I’d be OK with that. “When you think about what we do, diving from the heart—it’s coming from the heart.”
Transformation, Dive by Dive
He and about a dozen part-time staff members help their clients, who can’t move freely on land, experience the liberating buoyancy of immersion in water. Between the original Downers Grove, Ill.-based organization and its sister chapter in the United Kingdom, Diveheart taps hundreds of additional volunteers to help clients worldwide. Elliott has led training dives in hundreds of cities in the United States and around the world. In 2014 Diveheart launched its own certified training program and wrote the first scuba manual designed for people with disabilities. The organization also trains instructors and buddies who want to work with divers with disabilities.
Elliott has enlisted hundreds of pools around the world—at high schools, hotels and universities—to accommodate divers. Sometimes Diveheart works with just one diver with disabilities to train in these pools; sometimes there are 30. As they dive again and again, they learn their responsibilities, how to be comfortable in the water and how to communicate underwater.
Diveheart strives to provide its services free of charge. Swimming-pool dives cost nothing, and clients may repeat them indefinitely. Many have no desire beyond pool dives. But if participants want to pursue more ambitious dives, venturing to, say, Florida or Cozumel for an open-water experience but need help paying for it, the organization can help raise money to cover travel expenses.
Elliott recently worked with a buddies program in which able-bodied children go into the water with cognitively impaired kids. “I had a kid who was extremely anxious, and I was afraid he was going to take off on us.” Once the boy’s gear was on, he went to the bottom of the pool just fine. And at the end of the session, he told the teacher he really enjoyed the experience and wanted to do it again.
Adults generate results that are just as dramatic. “I had a Marine in Phoenix: A grenade took off part of his face, and he was not going out of the house since his injury,” Elliott says. “Once he came to the pool, he didn’t want to come out. His wife was crying outside the pool and said, ‘This is amazing.’ ”
“A Great Equalizer”
Tim O’Toole can attest to the effectiveness of the program, the joy and highly prized sense of freedom it provides to clients. As he observes a Diveheart event, he points out the “satisfaction and joy on the faces of people who are doing something nobody thought they could do.” He sees the happiness of his 32-year-old son, Ryan, who has a neurological disorder. The younger man has been scuba diving nine times with Diveheart, mainly on Sunday mornings at a fitness center in Elgin, Ill.
For the first time, Ryan—with Diveheart’s assistance—could experience being physically free and away from his wheelchair without fear of hurting himself, his father says. “He loves to glide under the water. The longer he is under, the more relaxed he becomes, and his legs and arms become more limber.” Ryan smiles while getting ready to dive, the elder O’Toole says, “and he’s still smiling when he gets out of the pool.”
The social aspect is a coup, too. Ryan doesn’t shy away from the attention and interaction. His father compliments the volunteer staffers for being “encouraging, careful and good-natured.” They’ve opened a whole new world to Ryan who has “demonstrated his growing confidence in himself” to the point where he volunteered to ride a zip line at a special-needs camp last summer.
Elliott is thrilled that Diveheart can fill a special niche for the disabled. “Maybe people can’t play basketball, baseball or football, but you know what they can do? Underwater they can be equal. Zero gravity is a great equalizer.”
Elliott believes his organization’s efforts can be empowering in other ways, too. “A child with a disability might motivate someone who’s able-bodied but says, ‘I can’t get a job.’ But here’s a girl with no arms, no legs who is gainfully employed and rocking the world.”
Clients’ experiences transcend the water and weightlessness, letting them redraw the boundaries of what they can achieve. “What we’re doing isn’t really about scuba diving. It’s helping people with disabilities reimagine the possibilities of their lives.”
This article appears in the February 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.