Student Spotlight: Jim Elliott
Major: Mass Communications
The stereotypical college-to-career story goes like this: Go to school. Earn your degree in a particular field. Go to work in that field.
But even the most remote collegiate experience can make an unexpected impact long after the student has left the classroom.
Case in point: COD alumnus Jim Elliott. Elliott studied journalism at COD. After earning his associate’s degree, he finished a bachelor’s in sports writing from Northern Illinois University.
However, a funny thing happened on the way to the press box. An entrepreneur since he started caddying at Riverside Golf Club at age 12, Elliott quickly moved from sports writing to advertising sales. He remained in the media business for two decades, working as an advertising executive for the Chicago Tribune Media Group, WGN and CLTV.
Then, despite his annual six-figure salary, he quit. Instead of selling space and time, he founded a nonprofit organization — one that has since helped thousands of people with disabilities in Illinois and around the world.
And it all started not with a journalism class — but a scuba diving class — at College of DuPage.
Elliott is the founder of the Diveheart Foundation. Established in Downers Grove in 2001, this non-profit 501(c)3 organization set out to “build confidence and independence and self-esteem in children, adults (including military veterans) with disabilities through scuba diving.”
In other words, Diveheart helps people who have lost limbs; people who suffer from chronic pain; and people with cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, autism and other conditions by getting them into the water and breathing oxygen from tanks on their backs.
Elliott’s exposure to people with special needs began when he was young. He would escort a friend with cerebral palsy to school to keep other kids from picking on him. Elliott’s father was a disabled veteran, while his Scoutmaster had one arm.
“I grew up with this understanding of people with special needs and disabilities,” he said.
The Diveheart seed was planted when Elliott’s daughter Erin was born blind in 1980. Elliott and his wife initially thought their daughter might be brain damaged. When it turned out to be blindness, they were delighted.
“We can work with that,” said Elliott.
As a mainstreamed student, Erin was teased about her eyes. When Elliott learned about a snow skiing program designed for blind children, he encouraged Erin to enroll. It became a favorite father-daughter activity. It helped build her confidence and self esteem. It helped reduce the teasing.
“She went from Erin the blind girl to Erin the skier,” said Elliott.
The impact on Erin also got Elliott thinking: If snow skiing can do this for blind people, what could scuba diving do for people with disabilities? He toyed with the idea for a dozen years.
“I just didn’t know how to make it happen,” said Elliott.
But like a lot of things in his life, Elliott the entrepreneur figured it out. By the year 2000, Elliott’s four children (including Erin) were grown and living on their own. He was divorced. His grandmother needed some help to live independently in her home, so Elliott-the-former-ad-guy became Elliott-the-caregiver. He also founded Diveheart out of his grandmother’s spare bedroom.
Since its founding, Diveheart has become a world leader in scuba training and experiences for people with “different abilities.” The big benefit, Elliott said, is the absence of gravity.
“There are lots of disability therapy programs,” said Elliott. “But we own zero gravity.”
While people with physical disabilities might one day benefit from space travel, Elliott said, that’s not practical or affordable right now.
“Water is inner space,” said Elliott. “Being an aquanaut is cheaper and faster than being an astronaut.”
Through Diveheart, people who can’t stand on their own find themselves vertical underwater. People who can’t move without wheelchairs are self-propelled beneath the surface.Whether in a swimming pool with Diveheart volunteers in Illinois or in the ocean with Diveheart-trained professionals off the coast of Florida or Cozumel, the paradigm shift, said Elliott, is dramatic.
“The benefits to the body, mind and spirit are amazing,” said Elliott. “People move from depression to fireball. They go on to do amazing things in the world. Diving gives them a purpose. They feel valued.”
Elliott said the positive impact is both physical and emotional. In fact, Diveheart has worked with university researchers to prove some of those benefits, including the benefits of breathing oxygen in deep ocean water to help people dealing with chronic pain.
One well-known Illinoisan who accepted Elliott’s invitation to take the Diveheart plunge at a local swimming pool in 2012 was Tammy Duckworth — at the time a veterans’ affairs professional (now a U.S. Senator). Duckworth lost her right leg near the hip and her left leg below the knee during combat in Iraq.
“You lose a lot of strength. You lose a lot of confidence,” she said. “I was apprehensive. But with the buoyancy of the water and zero gravity, I felt strong and powerful. I was able to keep up with everybody else, just using my arms. It was very liberating.”
Since it began, Diveheart has evolved into a sophisticated nonprofit. Contributions in 2016 totaled $362,290, with expenses of $378,000. Diveheart employs only a few part-time staffers. Elliott, who works full time, takes no salary. Even when Elliott travels, he bums space from friends to unfurl his bedroll.
It’s all part of his philosophy of doing a lot for a little.
Elliott said the journalism, public relations and marketing skills he honed at COD come in handy every day. And his sales skills help convince donors, sponsors and volunteers to pitch in. Diveheart has been covered over the years by “CNN Heroes with Heart,” “NBC World News Tonight,” “HLN Stories of Courage,” “CNN Money,” Huffington Post, and many Chicago-area media.
One person who’s taken the Diveheart plunge only once: Elliott’s daughter, Erin. Her reasoning: “Skiing is my thing, Dad. Diving’s yours.”
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