Stephanie Dominici has faced many challenges on the road to becoming an underwater archeologist.
At 6 months old, she was diagnosed with polio, which severely affected the use of her legs. Polio also required her to undergo surgeries, including a hip surgery roughly five years ago in Chicago. It was then she was introduced to the nonprofit Diveheart Foundation, which teaches scuba diving as a form of physical therapy for handicapped youth and adults.
Through Diveheart, Dominici became enthralled with diving and went on to study it at Florida Keys Community College, where she earned an associate degree in diving technology. She left the community college with the goal of becoming an underwater archeologist.
Dominici enrolled at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, and will graduate next year with a degree in archeology.
"I want to find shipwrecks," she said, adding that she ultimately would like to work in the Florida Keys. "I can swim as fast as anyone, if not faster."
Dominici, who has now dived throughout the world, returned to the community college Monday. This time, she was the one passing on the knowledge, helping a group of handicapped children hone their scuba diving techniques.
Diveheart brought a half-dozen youngsters to the pool at the college Monday. The youths, whose conditions ranged from cerebral palsy to autism, will spend several days diving in the Florida Keys.
The 10- to 14-year-olds have been studying diving for months. They practiced their skills in the pool and will dive offshore later in the week.
Diveheart was founded by Jim Elliot, whose daughter was born blind. He patterned Diveheart after a program in Colorado that teaches handicapped children to ski. The initial goal was "confidence, independence and self-esteem," Elliot said.
"We wanted to change the way people looked at them," Elliot said. "We thought it would help the inner spirit."
Elliot has expanded the program to research and physical therapy. Diveheart works with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago on its scuba therapy program. Diveheart also is a research partner with Duke University Medical Center, as participants have found scuba diving can alleviate pain, in some cases for as long as two weeks afterward, Elliot said.
Whether the program makes any medical breakthroughs, Elliot said it has shaped the lives of those involved and showed how the weightlessness of water can be an equalizer.