DOWNERS GROVE, Ill. (WLS) -- The world can be a tough place to negotiate for a person with severe disabilities.
But one group, called Diveheart, is using scuba diving as therapy for people with disabilities and military veterans who have experienced trauma. They say there's something about going under water that helps them reach new heights.
"There's no surface distractions under water," said Jim Elliott, founder and president of Diveheart. "It helps you focus and I think the pressure helps as well."
Elliott started Downers Grove-based Diveheart in 2001. The idea is to help people with disabilities to build confidence, independence and self-esteem through scuba therapy.
"We see the benefit immediately. The first pool session is very powerful," Elliott said. "We had no idea when the kids go home, some of the other benefits that the families were seeing, and how when they were out of the water for a while the families would say, 'God, we can tell that Johnny needs to get back in the water.'"
And you don't have to be a swimmer to dive. Natalie Chastain has cerebral palsy. The 21-year-old is wheelchair-bound and non-verbal. A full-face mask allows her to experience the zero-gravity water and release her physical challenges.
"We've had people with no arms and no legs. We've even had a guy on a ventilator believe it or not," Elliott said.
Greg Rodriguez, 31, is a U.S. Marines veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash shortly before he was to be deployed. He still struggles with speech and mobility but credits Diveheart with giving him a second chance.
"I'm living the dream," Rodriguez said.
"We push him a little bit more to get him further and further along," said Andy Ferraro, a volunteer scuba instructor.
Evelyn Felipez, 17, was born with spina bifida. She says diving has changed her life.
"Once I'm in the water, I feel that there are no limitations for me," Felipez said. "There's nothing that makes me feel like I can't do this."
The non-profit organization uses volunteer scuba instructors and does not charge a fee to participants.
The group has a goal of building a deep, "warm water" facility here in Illinois. To connect with Diveheart, visit http://www.diveheart.org/.