A program that aims to change the lives of at-risk teens by teaching them scuba diving got its feet wet Saturday in Aurora.
S.T.A.R.S. International, a Lake in the Hills-based nonprofit that stands for Scuba Training At Risk Students, gave basic lessons in the East Aurora High School pool to about 15 teens involved with Triple Threat Mentoring.
The teens -- some of whom never had been completely underwater -- learned the basics of breathing with scuba equipment, strapped themselves into 45 pounds of gear and gave it a shot -- under the direction of S.T.A.R.S. International volunteer instructors like Pete Livorsi and Phil Seils of Buffalo Grove.
"At first, when I went in, I wasn't used to breathing underwater," said Marcus Fultz, a 16-year-old East Aurora High School student.
Not breathing, even for a few seconds, is the biggest mistake novice scuba divers can make, S.T.A.R.S. International CEO Kevin Vaughn explained to small groups of teens before they entered the pool. Injuries can result if a scuba diver holds his or her breath and rises to the surface because air in the lungs will expand as water pressure decreases, he said.
"Never, never hold your breath while diving -- that's the biggest rule of scuba diving," Vaughn said.
Neikos said he remembered to breathe, and although the feeling was strange at first, he enjoyed getting a view from underwater and diving down toward the deep end.
"I liked it so much," Fultz said. "It was something I would want to do again, and I would want to get certified."
S.T.A.R.S. International has offered months-long programs in the northwest suburbs and Kenosha, Wis. to train students to become certified divers, Vaughn said.
But joining the program requires quite the commitment from teens who may be struggling in school, cutting class, experiencing family problems or being drawn toward gangs, he said.
Vaughn said students must commit to be in school every day, keep their grades the same or better and attend every session in the program, in which they learn how to manage their equipment, keep their ears from popping and stay calm when water enters their mask.
"They learn self-confidence from on-the-fly decision making," Vaughn said. "It teaches them accountability for their choices."
And suddenly, he said, science becomes interesting. So does exercising.
"You have to be physically fit to scuba dive," said Sebastian Rivera, an Elgin 20-year-old who helped out at Saturday's event after completing a S.T.A.R.S. International scuba certification program.
Saturday's event was a one-day course, and the Aurora teens who got their first scuba experience in the pool did not walk away as certified divers.
But Jordan Wilson, marketing director for Triple Threat Mentoring, said it was a valuable opportunity for urban students who otherwise may never experience such an activity.
"Scuba diving is something usually reserved for a more affluent community," Wilson said. "We're just as excited as the kids to be able to offer them this unique experience."