By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Atlantic Rangers is a scuba diving club founded in the 1990s to bring together African American divers.

The organization has roughly 75 members spanning from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, to Delaware; but what makes this club unique is its ongoing effort to foster the love of scuba diving among urban youth.

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“I feel like I was born to be under water,” says Robert Williams, co-founder of the Atlantic Rangers. The Chester native didn’t take up diving until he was in his 30s, but fell in love with the sport almost immediately and has been diving for nearly three decades.

“The first time I took a breath under water, I was done,” he says, “you’re weightless and you get to see things that people never see– going into outer space is the only other thing I can compare it to.”

Williams says he wished that he had discovered diving at an early age, but as a one of nine kids raised in the inner city, the cost of scuba was out of reach.

Instructors teaching young divers underwater. (Credit: ATRA YES)

Instructors teaching young divers underwater. (Credit: ATRA YES)

“There was no way my mother would have been able afford a pair of fins, let alone a scuba course,” he says.

So Williams, who has been a master diver for 20 years, decided he’d create a program that would give kids from his hometown the opportunity he never had.

“When I became an instructor I thought, for these kids in Chester, I’ll do it for free,” he says.

With the help of the Atlantic Rangers, they raise money pay for the hundreds, and many times, thousands of dollars for teenage-size scuba equipment that includes oxygen tanks, regulators, consoles and much more. The group then hosts free diving lessons at area Boys and Girls Clubs for kids from Chester, Philadelphia, and South Jersey who have an interest in the sport.

“When you introduce them to this- the first thing they say is this is a ‘white sport,’ when it’s not,” says Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Cunningham, who runs the Y.E.S. program. Cunningham learned to scuba dive while in the Marine Corps.

“Once we saw what it would take financially to do this,” he says, “we knew that every Black child would not be able to do it.”

In addition to diving lessons, ATRA Y.E.S. members mentor the teens they bring in. They also introduce them to robotics, as well as they many scientific lessons that are necessary in order to become a effective scuba diver.

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The group turned dozens of kids from urban communities into certified scuba divers.

“Once our kids get that feeling that they are under water and they are breathing,” says Cunningham, “we got them and they are hooked.”

Claude Knowles got interested in diving at around 30 years old. The only problem was the South Philadelphia native could not swim.

ATRA YES Diving trip (credit: ATRA YES)

ATRA YES Diving trip (credit: ATRA YES)

He took five years to learn and then started diving– but found it difficult to locate other African Americans willing to go under water with him.

“You need a buddy when you dive, because diving is a very dangerous sport,” says Knowles, who remembers being the only person of color on many of his diving trips. “When I finally found other Black divers– it rejuvenated my diving career– because I knew I’d have multiple dive buddies looking out for me.”

The National Association of Black Scuba divers has had an estimated 2000 members since it was founded.

“It’s culture we have,” says Knowles, who is the current president of the Atlantic Rangers. “We have a whole different vibe, so we want to expose these kids to scuba divers– but also to folks who look like them.”

For those kids who are successful in the program, there are no limits. cuba skills come in handy for under water welders, rescue divers, police divers, and many other careers. Travel to exotic locations, as well as a strong interest in environmental issues, also helps.

“This sport is not just for the elite or the rich and famous,” says Cunningham, “if you give a Black kid the opportunity– they can do this.”

For Williams, the program is about more than just opportunity. It’s also about legacy.

“As long as there is an ocean out there,” he says, “this program will run.”

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