Black Dolphins president Clifton Hicks (bottom left) and fellow member Michael Johnson (bottom right) working with students in the pool at the Calhoun Family Investment Center near Gilpin Court. James Dickinson photos
Below the surface of Lake Rawlings, about an hour's drive south of Richmond, might as well be a thousand miles away for a handful of youngsters who hail from some the city's roughest neighborhoods.
Two summers ago, 14-year-old Jacquelyn Williams strapped on scuba-diving gear and descended for the first time into the lake, which was once a quarry. The experience took her well out of her comfort zone. "I was scared because there were a lot of fish," she says. Prior to this strange new adventure, all of Jacquelyn's diving had happened in the crystal-clear safety of a swimming pool at the Calhoun Family Investment Center beside the Gilpin Court public-housing development.
The teenager is one of about eight young people involved with a special scuba-diving program offered through the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA). The program began about three years ago when Richmond resident Clifton Hicks, a training instructor for Philip Morris and an avid scuba diver, began using the Calhoun Center's pool for practice dives. Hicks is also the president of a recreational scuba club, the Black Dolphin Divers of Richmond.
"I would be down in the deep end of the pool and notice the kids in the shallow end going underwater, holding their breath as long as they could to check out what I was doing," he says.
The young swimmers' curiosity sparked a conversation between Hicks and Joan Seldon, assistant director for resident services for the RRHA's Youth Sports and Fine Arts Academy (YSFAA). The two agreed to begin recruiting members of the academy's swim team, the Cougars, for a scuba club.
With RRHA funding, the Black Dolphins club began volunteering time and expertise to teach scuba-diving skills to a group of teenagers from the city's housing projects.
In the Calhoun Center's pool, volunteers such as Hicks and Michael Johnson, a Richmond carpenter and Black Dolphins diver, began guiding the kids through basic proficiency with diving masks, flippers, breathing equipment and underwater communication.
Jacquelyn was the third teen in her family to join the diving program — her brothers Kenneth, 18, and Terrel, 17, have been diving with the club for a few years.
On a Friday morning in mid-June, Hicks and Johnson gathered the young divers for a practice at the Calhoun Center before six of the teens prepared to leave for a weeklong "youth summit" — an event organized by the National Association of Black Scuba Divers — in Savannah, Ga.
This year, the gathering drew about 40 young divers from across the United States. It's one of several events the Richmond teens have attended in the past few years.
Two years ago, 15-year-old Latifah Neblett-Burrell was selected by the Black Dolphins to attend the summit in Curacao, a diving mecca in the Caribbean Islands.
"It was beautiful," she says. "We dove every day we were there."
She had never flown on a plane before or traveled very far beyond her Fulton Court stomping grounds, she says. Arriving in a strange place with a lot of new faces to meet, she recalls, made her feel nervous, tentative. But like her first experiences diving, she moved through the unknown and found confidence.
Her mother, Teressa Neblett-Burrell, also went on the trip and notes today how she's watched Latifah grow through her association with the diving club.
"This was out of the norm for her," Teressa says. "She's laid-back, quiet," but now, she adds, "she's more confident, willing to try new things, more open. She's come out of her shell a lot."
The combination of her commitment to building her scuba skills, her academic performance at Richmond Community High School and her volunteer work as a student tutor earned her the national association's "Young Diver Award" at this year's summit.
The chance to travel — with help from RRHA and the Black Dolphins — and to make new friends is why the young divers say they're drawn to the program.
Others, like Kenneth and Terrel Williams, see some professional possibilities in building their diving skills, such as underwater construction and oceanography.
The training offered by the Black Dolphins has helped the teen divers earn certifications that give them access to certain diving areas and equipment privileges, as well as increasing responsibility for themselves and other divers.
Johnson and Hicks share childhood memories of movies and TV shows such as The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau and Sea Hunt that first sparked their fascination with the ocean.
Each was well into adulthood before they had the chance to go scuba diving — about 10 years ago for both of them.
In addition to their outreach with the YSFAA teens, the Black Dolphin Divers stay active with trips around the globe. It's a small group of about 14 committed divers from Central Virginia and the Tidewater area. Hicks notes that the club embraces diversity beyond its African-American base and strives to share that value with its young charges.
"My only regret is that I didn't start diving sooner," Hicks says. "This has been like a dream. Through my passion to scuba-dive, it has brought me closer to people."
Harry Kollatz Jr. contributed to this story.