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National Association of
Underwater Instructors
"Outstanding Service Award" - 2015

Adaptive Diving Association

April 1, 2015  |  John Tapley
Northeast Dive News OnLine (

For untold numbers of people around the globe, adaptive scuba diving allows them to experience a world of freedom and independence without the restraints of gravity. Engaged in this active sport, adaptive divers can enjoy a spirit of camaraderie, and the immeasurable benefits of mental and physical well-being. Escaping physical confines and restrictions, these individuals are able to continue living life on their own terms; through their own talents; and through a drive fueled by personal determination and the encouragement of others. In the works for over three decades, the Hilltop Grotto project, when completed, will serve as a facility for people with adaptive needs to gain the unique freedom of scuba diving.

" The first step toward success is taken when you
refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself. "

At age 68, Jim Hoser of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, has dedicated the majority of his life to helping individuals with disabilities find comfort, solace, and excitement through the world of adaptive scuba diving. Every lifelong mission begins with a spark of inspiration, and from a young age, he witnessed the difficulties facing disabled friends who were interested in underwater exploration. At the time, adaptive diving training options were not widely available: most certification agencies did not have programs for individuals with adaptive needs, or were in a fledgling state of development. Adaptive diving needed a champion to help spread the love of scuba to a completely new audience – Jim answered the call.

  The ' Hilltop Grotto ' : Sketches , Renditions , Drawings ... and a Dream !

    ... never throw away your napkin drawings !

Over 30 years ago, Jim’s passion for diving inspired him to found adaptive diving training center Hilltop Diving. Originally, the business began as a service shop for divers who had difficulties attaining equipment repairs, but quickly grew into its current incarnation. With his seasoned staff of volunteers, he trains associates on the best methods and techniques for teaching adaptive diving to disabled individuals, and works with these individuals directly to provide the utmost care, motivation, and safety.

Concurrently, Jim began to develop one of the most ambitious scuba projects the world over: a massive, all-in-one adaptive diving facility entitled Hilltop Grotto. Designed from the ground up, the accessible center will share the weightless freedom of water activity for people with adaptive needs.

Focused on comfort and convenience, Hilltop Grotto will maintain a consistent temperature of 86 degrees year round, made possible by spray foam insulation, which will separate the grotto from the surrounding ground. Applied by one of Jim’s lifelong friends, Dik McGlaughlin, this advantage will allow adaptive divers to enjoy the waters longer while avoiding the risk of exposure. The facility will also include a training pool with a gradual decline for progressive education, which will connect to the grotto via an underwater channel. Conveniently, the grotto will also be connected to Hilltop Diving’s service facility, which offers quality prosthetics, custom adaptive diving equipment, and a state of the art hydrostatic cylinder facility.

Over the years, Jim has worked closely with Dutch Springs safety diver and Temple University scuba instructor Alen Malott, who has lent his full support to the inspiring project.

“Jim’s dream is to be able to build a facility for disabled people to get open water certified. Everything students need will be right there under one roof,” Alen explains. “He even has a bus ready to go to help transport people from the airport to the facility.”

But what is passion without a solid foundation? For years, Jim aspired to build his own instructional facility, though he had difficulties finding groups, which could assist in its development. One day, the avid instructor received a call from a nearby construction company, Haines & Kibblehouse (H&K). Much to Jim’s fortune, he had previously taught scuba to the son of a company owner, who suggested an auspicious arrangement: if Jim would find a displaced dredging head, H&K would supply equipment and expertise to help drill the grotto’s perimeter. Unsurprisingly, Jim sprang into action, and he and his crew successfully recovered the piece of machinery through a daring dive, in what Jim describes as a “thick slurry”: a challenge, which made conventional diving techniques difficult. The plan went through without a hitch: H&K and Jim’s crew began drilling and digging through 45 feet of solid granite, and completed the initial grotto over a period of six months. The bedrock was laid for Hilltop Grotto, but the work was far from finished: wall installation and structural integration soon followed.

  The ' Hilltop Grotto ' : Sketches , Renditions , Drawings ... and a Dream !

    ... the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Jim has tirelessly worked on his dream, and has completely funded construction and training through his personal finances. But to complete the facility, he will need the assistance of a (provided by a 501-C3) non-profit corporation. Remaining projects include the interior tiling and amenities, plumbing, roofing, and other important tasks.

Adding to the financial constraints of funding such a massive endeavor, Jim was beset by a series of unfavorable setbacks throughout the years. However, his resilience and dedication did not waiver during these difficult times.

In 1980, an unfortunate accident during a CAT scan left Jim a paraplegic: he would be confined to a wheelchair for the next six years. Undeterred, he continued working diligently on scuba projects and in his complementary electrical contracting business. Already tough as nails, Jim would face another difficult encounter during this time.

“On one of my electrical jobs at a local restaurant, I would go in at 4:30 in the morning, leave my wheelchair to go down the stairs, get in another chair, and continue my work,” he accounts. “I came in one morning while it was raining, got grease on the wheels, stopped at the top of the stairs, and ended up at the bottom. They didn’t find me until 8:30.”

Jim later woke up in the hospital, and seemingly through a miracle, the electrician and scuba instructor regained something his physicians thought would be impossible: for the first time in over half a decade, he could experience sensory functions and motor control. But the battle was far from over: it took 14 months of intensive physical therapy to recover.

  The ' Hilltop Grotto ' : Sketches , Renditions , Drawings ... and a Dream !

    ... faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase.

Shortly after this revelation, Jim was diagnosed with lung cancer, and was given a scant amount of months to live: another challenge for this tough as nails survivor. Resolute in continuing his purpose, Jim took the advice of a young doctor, and frequently traveled between China and England for a series of new oncology procedures. The treatments were a success, and Jim has been free of cancer for 20 years.

Despite having faced nearly impossible odds – not once, but thrice – Jim’s determination never faltered. These circumstances forged an even mightier diligence to helping others through scuba: a burst of inspiration, which would carry over to additional pursuits.

Over the years, Jim and his instructors have developed close relationships with many East Coast lakes, pools, organizations, and training centers, which facilitate these life-renewing services. One such opportunity, Camp STAR, is a week-long summertime facility, which offers physically disabled adolescents opportunities to enjoy sports and group activities. Through basketball, racing, swimming, scuba diving, and many other pursuits, participants are able to utilize this adaptive training to see the myriad possibilities, which await them. On the scuba side of this important experience, Jim and his associates have served as keystone contributors for nearly two decades.

“Each year, Jim and his team come out to the diving pool, and give kids an opportunity to see what it’s like to scuba dive,” states Camp STAR volunteer Kelly Gollick. “It’s a particularly valuable opportunity for camp goers who have limited or no use of their legs as they can use their body in a completely different way: a very freeing way. Jim and the team know how to bring out the best in campers and make them feel comfortable with a new experience.”

In 2014, Jim experienced one of his most unique, memorable encounters. During an adaptive diving event for the Carousel House (a year-round recreational and social center for disabled individuals), he trained quadruple amputee Christine Kaestle, who exhibited an intense, indomitable drive for learning adaptive diving.

"Christine's Experience" Video, Courtesy of Cigna Insurance ...

Weeks later, Jim received a call from the Cigna Health Insurance, who were producing a documentary on Christine’s experiences; she recommended Jim take part in this valuable video. The company asked Jim to completely train her in scuba diving over a span of one week: a challenging task given the timeframe, but not impossible for a teacher like Jim, and for a student as determined as Christine.

“She showed up at the pool, and we helped her in. This lady could teach the Energizer Bunny new tricks: she has an unbelievable personality and an incredible energy. I manufactured her arm fins, and one week later she was on independent scuba. When she came out of the pool, she was grinning from ear to ear!”

“We work with these programs to allow people who have never been able to enjoy freedom to achieve it by being neutral in the water,” adds Jim. “I don’t like to use the words ‘handicapped’ or ‘disabled’. We work with people who are adaptive to what they want to accomplish.”

Built strong, yet wholly inviting, the Hilltop Grotto will stand as an important testament: not only to Jim’s lionhearted legacy, but to the countless students he has helped – and from there the myriad sparks of fiery determination. Hilltop Grotto will be much more than a scuba facility: it will serve as an ironclad icon of the human spirit, and its unwavering commitment to excellence.

“I have some of the most fantastic volunteers who are working with some of the greatest kids on earth. It doesn’t get any better than that!” Jim exclaims. “These divers share a passion, and the only reward are the smiles on the faces of people that have earned freedom.”

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55 Pennypacker Road
Schwenksville, PA. 19473
Phone: 610.287.7270
   Fax: 610.287.0806

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