Dive Buddy and instructor Charlie Barnes, left, assists Kathy Champion, who is blind, while under water at Elks Lodge 1224 in St. Petersburg during a Discover Scuba session on April 18. The next session, held the third Thursday of each month, will take place May 16.
SEMINOLE – American Legion Post 252 Cross Bayou has teamed up with Dive Care to support scuba divers with disabilities – both civilians and veterans.
On Sunday, May 19, the nonprofit organization will hold a daylong course for those interested in becoming Dive Buddies for disabled individuals in the swimming pool at Cross Bayou, 11433 Park Blvd. Once certified following the training, Dive Buddies will then be able to assist those with disabilities in the pool or in open water.
While the class is only open to divers of a higher skill level and who have more experience under water, anyone is free to come down to watch the training.
“If you’re curious, you’re welcome to come observe and help get the word out about what we’re doing, and what Dive Care is doing,” said Raymond Kruse, the post’s historian and an avid scuba diver who organized the class with Dive Care. “It’s really interesting to see.”
In order for Dive Buddies to be able to assist those with disabilities, they need to experience those disabilities for themselves, Kruse said. So training includes the use of blacked out masks, to simulate blindness, and various ways of limiting the use of arms and legs.
Bill Hardman, founder of Dive Care, said the group is always looking for all kinds of volunteers, not just those who are able to get in the water with the veterans.
“We need people to help them above water as well as under it,” he said, including helping disabled divers put on wetsuits and equipment. And the organization is always in need of administrative help and volunteers for fundraisers and events.
Hardman was inspired to form Dive Care in 2007 after teaching a scuba class at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus.
In his class was Kathy Champion, a former soldier who contracted a virus while serving in Iraq that slowly blinded her. She also was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
She didn’t let this slow her down, though. Instead, she created a bucket list of experiences she’d like to have before becoming fully disabled. On this list was scuba diving.
“She knew she would become disabled as time went on,” Hardman said, “but she didn’t know when or how. So in the meantime, she wanted to do as much as she could.”
Hardman, who served in the Coast Guard reserves for seven years, realized there were other wounded and disabled veterans out there who might also benefit from the experience of scuba diving.
“There are so many disabled military out there, sitting around,” he said. “We wanted to cater to them, give these guys something to do.”
The disabilities come in many forms, Hardman said, from post-traumatic stress disorder to missing limbs.
“Gravity is a demon for them,” Hardman said. “But if you put them in the water, that demon is gone.”
“When you’re underwater, you’re totally free of everything,” Kruse added. “You don’t feel pressure. And with the buoyancy, you just float right there.”
Hardman, who also owns Aquatic Obsessions scuba shop in St. Petersburg, found an instructor in Chicago and paid for him to come train the shop’s staff on how to work with people with physical and mental disabilities.
Now, the group is actively seeking disabled veterans and civilians interested in diving. The first step, would be for anyone interested to come down to one of the organization’s Discover Scuba sessions, held the third Thursday of each month, said Charlie Barnes, an instructor with Dive Care. The next Discover Scuba session will be held Thursday, May 16, at the Elks Lodge 1224, 2675 66th St. N., St. Petersburg. Cross Bayou will alternate with the Elks Lodge as host of its free Discover Scuba classes held the third Thursday of every month, Barnes added.
“The best part is, our services are free,” he said. “It doesn’t cost anyone a dime. And it’s an amazing experience for these guys.”