Diving into scuba therapy to launch a revolutionary nonprofit.
Former Chicago Tribune and WGN Radio exec uses therapeutic scuba diving to empower people with disabilities. The genesis of Jim E.’s second act began not in the water as you might expect, but on a ski slope. An avid skier as well as scuba diver since college, the Chicago media advertising executive was a volunteer downhill ski instructor for the blind in his spare time.
Moved by the positive impact learning to ski had on his students, he began contemplating an encore career with greater personal meaning: helping more people with disabilities experience a similar transformation. But instead of focusing on ski slopes, he thought about therapeutic scuba diving.
“I knew that if skiing could turn a life around to the degree that it did,” Jim says, “the forgiving, gravity-free activity of scuba diving could do the same, or even more, for people with all types of disabilities.”
Floating a New Idea
Acting on that epiphany didn’t happen right away, however.
For more than 20 years, diving took a backseat to building a family and a career. It wasn’t until after his children were grown that Jim decided the time was right to make his idea a reality. In 1997, he left his job to teach diving instruction and form a nonprofit, swapping a stable annual salary for the promise of a full-time volunteer pursuit.
At first, he used scuba gear he’d acquired over time and worked out of his grandmother’s house, where he lived as her caregiver. “We started very slowly,” he recalls, “holding programs at community pools and local quarries that were redeveloped as dive sites during the summer.” But from those humble beginnings, the launch of a formal nonprofit quickly took shape. Through a combination of personal savings, careful management of assets and successful leveraging of longtime relationships built during his media career, Jim founded his Downers Grove, Ill.-based organization in 2001. He was only 44 at the time.
A friend’s law firm did the 501(c) 3 incorporation and trademark work pro bono. “Once I could raise money as a nonprofit, we were off to the races,” Jim says. Donations, mostly from personal appeals and event fundraisers, mounted as word spread.
To keep costs low, the work is largely volunteer-driven and takes place in oceans, lakes, community pools, recreation or rehab centers, high schools, hotels or hospitals. Since its inception, the organization has trained thousands of volunteers as instructors, supporting its mission of building confidence and independence in children, adults and veterans with disabilities and providing services in cities across the United States, Australia, the Caribbean, China, Israel and Mexico.
Years of networking know-how also helped along the way. For example, many of Jim’s former business contacts regularly donate ongoing legal services, reduced office/warehouse rent, free vehicle maintenance and airline frequent flyer miles.
While Jim doesn’t draw a salary, he does get paid for teaching other instructors how to dive with people with disabilities. And fortunately, Jim was a diligent saver during his first career, so he’s been able to supplement his income with a portion of his nest egg.
“It was very difficult to leave a six-figure income to become a volunteer,” he admits, “but now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Expanding the Reach
More recently, the nonprofit created a first-of-its-kind adaptive diver and instructor program, which establishes best practices in the field and pioneers new techniques. Such achievements have led to several grants, as well as partnerships with university medical centers, hospitals and rehabilitation institutes.
On Jim’s wish list for the future is development of a multimillion-dollar facility encompassing a deep-water therapy pool complex — to serve as a hub for scuba-related research, rehab, education and vocational training.
He knows it’s a big goal.
“People with disabilities are often told that they can’t do the same things their able-bodied peers can do. But underwater, they’re equal,” says Jim. “That—not a paycheck—is what drives me. It’s what makes me excited to start every day.”