Brave New World
With a lot of help and safety gear, disabled divers venture into Lovers Cove to glimpse the underwater universe.
Thursday, June 27, 2002
Photos by Randy Tunnell.
Photos: Ready And Willing-Clockwise from upper left, Ricky Belmonte gets encouragement from Steve Fortino; Belmonte gets a final hood fitting; Belmonte enters the water with two volunteers; Janice and Steve Miguel help their daughter Melissa out of her wetsuit as Fortino assists.
Steve Fortino''s got the kind of can-do attitude that works like a shot of optimism on doubting Thomases. It''s 8am on this sunny Saturday morning, and Fortino is using his powers of persuasion to convince 14 mentally and physically challenged adolescents that the skills they''ve been practicing in a Gilroy swimming pool can translate to strapping on scuba gear and entering the chilly waters of Lovers Cove.
Fortino stands in the back of his pickup truck and welcomes the crowd of students, parents and volunteers standing in the parking lot at Lovers Point. A banner behind him is emblazoned with the letters of the program he founded in 2001: DEEP, or Diving and Exploration for Exceptional People. Cheers and whistles erupt from the excited crowd.
"Today is our third dive since our first one last June," says Fortino. "Our goal is to have three Monterey dives a year, plus a warm water destination."
"We are going to have to sell an awful lot of cookies," bellows a large man in a wetsuit.
The crowd laughs. So far, no cookies-only grants and lots of donated time and equipment, including gear from Aquarius Dive Shop in Monterey-have been necessary to fund this unusual program.
Fortino briefs the group on the structure of the morning. Four volunteers per student, two on land and two at sea, will ensure participants'' safety. He reads off a list of students and names their volunteers.
"This is a top water dive," reminds Fortino. "If any students want to go underwater, don''t let them."
Until recently, Fortino would never have considered the possibility of bringing his students, whose challenges range from being in a wheelchair to not having the mental capacities to write their own names, into a sport as potentially dangerous as scuba diving.
But it was one of Fortino''s own students in his Gilroy special education class who approached him two years ago and said, "I want to do that dive thing you do." Fortino, a recreational diver who teaches adults with disabilities in addition to disabled high school students, was taken aback. Diving seemed hardly suited for people challenged by mental disabilities such as Down''s Syndrome and autism and physical problems such as strokes and paralysis.
"I kind of brushed her off," he says. "About the third time she asked me, I listened. Part of my job is to expand what the students can do and what they want to do."
But it wasn''t simple conceiving of a safe way to get his students in the water while keeping them within easy reach. Then Fortino picked up a scuba magazine and read about Supplied Air Snorkeling for Youth, or SASY, a new sport that offers constant air from a regulator attached to an oxygen tank but keeps the participant on the surface of the water.
"It''s easier to do than snorkeling," says Fortino. "You don''t have to worry about a swell coming over the top." With a buoyancy compensator holding up the tank and the student, it''s also impossible for a user to sink.
Fortino found that the community was eager to help out with donated time and equipment after he explained the technique.
"I''ve had people almost a little mad and think we are going to kill people," says Fortino, "but then I tell them we aren''t going underwater."
Today volunteers have come from all over Northern California. Frank Degnan, a Monterey resident who co-founded National Instructors Association for Divers with Disabilities (NAAID), is among those volunteering. Degnan''s specialty is taking those with severe physical limitations-including a woman who has to blink to communicate-into the water.
"If they are willing to do it, who am I to say no?" Degnan says.
It''s time to roll. Volunteers squeeze students into tight neoprene wetsuits, wedge booties on their feet, and console those who dislike the hood. Most are eager, but a few students hang back. One girl chooses to listen to her Walkman and watch the group. There''s no pressure.
"We take them wherever their comfort zone is," Fortino says. "If they''re only out there in the water 10 minutes, it''s still an experience they''ve never had."
Students carefully navigate the stairs down to the beach as parents, grandparents and siblings take photos and cheer. Rick Belmonte, 22, is on his third dive. Last time he informed mom Sandy Belmonte that besides the usual fish and sea urchins, he spotted the Titanic underwater. Rick floats on his back in the arms of Katie Bloomquist, 16, a volunteer whose goal is to help Rick feel comfortable in the water before strapping on his scuba tank.
Nearby, Dani Wells, 16, gets ready for her first time in the ocean.
"Yahoo!" she yells.
Dani, a competitive swimmer, takes off with her two vigilant volunteers to the far end of the cove.
"We''ve got four years to make sure they are as independent as possible," says Sue Flowethe, an adaptive physical education teacher in the Santa Clara Office of Education. "This is much more fun than walking on a balance beam. It''s a whole sensory awakening for some of these guys."
Fortino climbs onto the jetty above the beach to check the sets. He''s looking forward to taking more groups out in the water, including those not enrolled in school. He knows that despite the challenges, he has an advantage in working with his students.
"Being a special ed teacher is very different from being a regular teacher," says Fortino. "They trust you incredibly."
For information about volunteering with DEEP, contact Steve Fortino at (408) 842-3247.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is taking applications from individuals with disabilities who wish to join their volunteer diving program. Volunteers perform services such as maintenance in the tanks and assisting with feedings. For more information contact Gavin Wuttken, Diving Safety Officer, at 648-4821.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium, in conjunction with NAAID, is hosting its first diving event for those with mental and physical challenges on July 14, 2002, at 6:30am in the Great Tide Pool. For more information, contact Dorothy Stonely of NAAID at (408) 379-6536.