Spring 2008 Issue
What lies beneath
Recent grad Jennifer Hennessey found her calling helping disabled vets defy gravity
By Richard A. Webster
Water is the great equalizer, says Sharon Kegeles, director of the Barry University Sport Management-Diving Industry program.
"It doesn't matter if someone rolls up to a dive charter vessel in a wheelchair or if someone happens to come on a boat with a set of crutches or a prosthetic arm," Kegeles said. "Once they're in the water, all of the restrictions they felt on land disappear and it's like they're reborn."
As part of the dive program, Kegeles stresses how diving can benefit the disabled and in December she took 10 undergraduates to Key Largo where they met a group of soldiers who recently returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like the students, the soldiers were young, most in their early 20s, and eager to dive. But unlike the students, the soldiers suffered from debilitating combat injuries. Some were paralyzed, while the majority struggled with severe head trauma.
It was the students' responsibility to teach the wounded men how to dive and accompany them under the surface of the water where their paralyzed bodies would no longer be a burden, dragged down by gravity, but would float and move with ease.
Diving with the soldiers reminded graduate Jennifer Hennessy of the first time she worked with the disabled as a sophomore at Barry.
"There were 10 guys in wheelchairs and they just hopped into the pool and they were swimming like fish," she said. "I'm always trying to share diving with everybody because it's such an amazing experience. And then I realized there was this whole other group of people who can dive, but have more obstacles in the way of getting certified. That's when I figured that's what I wanted to do."
Hennessy grew up in Boston and earned her certification at the age of 14 while diving in the freezing waters off the fishing community of Gloucester, Mass. One day she noticed an advertisement for Barry University in a diving magazine and jumped at the opportunity to improve her skills in the waters of southern Florida.
But once enrolled, Hennessy said she realized there was more to diving than the adventure and freedom. Every dive student is required to volunteer time with the disabled and Hennessy said her first experience had a profound effect on her.
After that, Hennessy took every opportunity to work with the disabled even when it wasn't required of her. While other students enjoyed the experience she saw instruction and rehabilitative diving as a potential career. And as graduation approached she made her intentions known to Kegeles who approached the International Association of Handicapped Divers about the possibility of Hennessy joining their organization.
Based on Kegeles' recommendation, IAHD created the first internship in the organization's 14-year history specifically for Hennessy.
Hennessy's passion for working with the disabled and their goal of increasing awareness in the U.S. made it a perfect fit, said IAHD Vice President Frasier Bathgate.
The IAHD is headquartered in the Netherlands and active in 23 countries. It has one branch in the United States located in Key Largo that holds just one or two training events a year.
"The idea is to really build it up so we can reach more people," Hennessy said.
Bathgate, who helped coordinate Hennessy's trip, knows intimately the healing powers of scuba diving.
At the age of 23, he was an accomplished climbing instructor. He said it was "his life, his love and his career."
During a training session for a trek to the Himalayas, Bathgate was half way up the face of a cliff when someone at the top disconnected and stole his safety gear. When he slipped, there was nothing to prevent him from falling, and he dropped 25 feet.
It wasn't far, he said, but far enough to paralyze him from the waist down.
The person who stole his equipment has never been caught.
"It left me hospitalized and over the next six years I underwent various operations," he said. "That put me in a situation where I wasn't able to do anything."
A decade later, the former mountain climber was physically and emotionally spent. With his days of adventure seemingly behind him, he fell into a deep depression. But during a trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Bathgate met a pair of diving instructors who encouraged him to slip into a wet suit and SCUBA tank.
Just try it, they said.
"It was like a new lease on life for me because I was able to do stuff in the water I couldn't do on land," he said. "And teaching people with disabilities to scuba dive, you can't put a price on it. It's the most awesome thing you'll ever see. And that's why we brought on Jennifer as an intern, to help expose this experience to more people in the U.S."
For two months, from June to July 2007, Hennessy traveled through Europe where she worked at IAHD offices in England, Denmark, Holland and Greece. Her job was to study the organization and apply what she learned to strengthen and increase the activity of the U.S. office.
"I was trying to take in as much as I could overseas," Hennessy said. "It was mostly taking notes and meeting people but there was one time when I got the chance to work with the disabled."
During her stop in Denmark, Hennessy met a young boy whose mother drank while she was pregnant. He was 10 years old but looked like he was five and suffered from severe developmental issues, she said.
"He was very hyper and didn't act like a normal 10-year-old should have," she said. "But he was really excited. Even though he didn't speak English you could tell how excited he was to be there. He couldn't wait to learn how to dive."
When Hennessy and the dive instructor took the boy into the water his manic energy disappeared and a calm washed over him.
Suddenly he was focused and happy, pointing out every little fish and crab that swam past his scuba mask.
"For disabled people once they get in the water it's like their disability is gone," Hennessy said. "They're weightless and if they can't use their legs all of a sudden it doesn't matter."
This is the mantra Kegeles has been reinforcing to her students since Barry University hired her 15 years ago to transform the dive program which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2007.
She has helped it grow from a major focused solely on teaching students how to dive to an expansive program that incorporates marine and environmental sciences, photography, forensics and international business.
Kegeles was part of the first graduating class in 1989 that consisted of herself and one other person.
The dive program was originally based at the Florida Institute of Technology, but when FIT decided to shut down its two-year scuba course in 1987, the instructors asked Barry University if it would be interested in adopting it.
Former president Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, OP, agreed and expanded it to a four-year major.
Five years after her graduation, Kegeles was hired by Barry University as the dive program's new director. She set out to expand its focus to encompass a variety of fields that offered students more post-graduation opportunities.
Instead of limiting course study to dive instruction, science requirements of anatomy and applied exercise physiology were added to teach students about the body in motion.
"It makes them better divers, better dive leaders and better dive instructors because they understand the body holistically and how it works," she said.
A business minor that incorporated the dive industry's expansion into the field of adventure travel and tourism was also introduced.
"It's all about globalization. That's why the industry has changed and expanded. Things are affordable now to people who have disposable income to get involved with the sport which is no longer just for the elite. It can be for a diverse population."
These combined changes grew the program from an initial graduating class of two to a yearly average of 30 students.
But it was Kegeles' 2001 decision to include the instruction of the disabled that truly revolutionized the program.
"The reason I became involved with teaching the disabled is because I felt ostracized when I was taught as a student. I had people who didn't want to teach me and made my life miserable."
Kegeles left a high-stress nursing job in search of a new experience but instead of enjoying the freedom of the water she said her instructors made her feel inadequate. She was in her early thirties and didn't fit the stereotypical image of a young and lean diver so her instructor showed little interest in teaching her. And when he did he was patronizing and insulting, she said.
"I was an adult and have always been a large woman and people didn't want to accommodate me. The guy who taught me did everything he could to make me not want to complete my certification. So I said if I ever had the opportunity to teach I would make sure that it would not happen to another person."
In order to fulfill that goal Kegeles says she has had to inspire a new generation of students to approach dive instruction with the same sensitivity. She points to Hennessy as the perfect example of a student who "got it."
Hennessy is currently employed as an editor for an online diving magazine but her goal is to work full-time as a dive instructor for the disabled. She is organizing another large dive event with the wounded veterans and hopes to establish a permanent scuba program for the handicapped in southern Florida.
When she enrolled at Barry, Hennessy says she never envisioned that this would be her chosen career path. But the first time she dove with the disabled and saw "that look" on their faces, the sudden realization that life is not over, that paralysis does not have to be a death sentence, Hennessy said she was hooked.
"I've seen this happen with so many people and it's an amazing experience every time. Moments like these don't just have an impact on you; they really change you as a person."