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Pure Joy: Sharing the Sky with the Free-Fall Foundation

Pure Joy by Mara Schmid | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/11/pure-joy-sharing-the-sky-with-the-free-fall-foundation/
Written by Mara

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Originally printed in issue #81 (September 2016) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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For years Matt Blank and his friends, Kevin Morroun and Mat Kenney, discussed the idea of gifting tandems to strangers as a way to share the sky with people who would otherwise not be able to afford it. After losing Kevin and Mat to BASE accidents in 2014 and 2016 respectively, Matt decided he couldn’t wait any longer to turn their unfulfilled dreams into reality. “I believe that we should invest ourselves in each other,” says Matt. “And I believe that everyone should be able to answer yes to these two questions: have you experienced joy in your life? Have you brought joy to others?”

At the beginning of July, the Free-Fall Foundation launched with a website and a GoFundMe campaign. Matt’s original plan was to raise a chunk of money to file paperwork for the foundation and get everything going with a bang, but when recipient nominations started coming in, he was even more impatient to get started.

One of the first nominations was from Perris skydiver Mary Todd, nominating her friend Carol Jack. “Carol Jack has been stricken with multiple sclerosis (MS) for over two decades,” Mary wrote. “She has been wheelchair bound for most of that time. Carol is a wonderful person, who has donated her time and some of the very little money she receives in government aid to young people in need.

Pure Joy by Mara Schmid | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/11/pure-joy-sharing-the-sky-with-the-free-fall-foundation/

Matt, Carol, Mary Todd, and Rom head to the plane. Photo by John Verbeck.

“Just a few Christmases ago, she and her caregiver bought clothes and toys for a young girl who was not going to have a Christmas … Carol has also volunteered to help children many times, including the Annual Big Bear Pumpkin Patch and Carnival, getting around in a wheelchair. She makes very little money. She was not able to work long enough to qualify for Social Security, so she lives on state disability.

“Carol has known me for over a decade. She has frequently told me she would love to skydive, even if it was just once.”

Matt read the email to a friend of his. “I have to do this, right? I have to!” he exclaimed.

A second nomination came from Janis McGavin, nominating hairdresser and single mom Justine McCabe. “Eighteen months ago Justine’s husband committed suicide. Left devastated and on her own to raise two kids, she was encouraged by family and friends to hit the gym and has lost over 120 pounds.

“She didn’t let grief destroy her. Through tenacity and hard work she changed her life and inspired many others. I have never met anyone who has gone through so much and handled it with such grace.”

Pure Joy by Mara Schmid | http://blueskiesmag.com/2016/10/11/pure-joy-sharing-the-sky-with-the-free-fall-foundation/

Matt reached out to Skydive Perris, knowing they had the infrastructure and training in place to help him make Carol’s and Justine’s dreams a reality. The response from management was enthusiastic. Tandem instructor Rom Antunes agreed to jump with Carol, as he is qualified to use a special tandem harness that allows the instructor to control the student’s legs in freefall and lift them up for landing. Details were finalized, and all that remained was to call Justine and Carol and let them know it was a go.

“My friend Mary Todd has jumped since she was 17 years old,” says Carol. “I kept bugging her and bugging her [about skydiving], and finally out of the blue she called me and said, ‘Do you still want to jump?’ I said, ‘Hell yes!’”

For Justine, skydiving with the Free-Fall Foundation was the next step in a long journey. “A friend of mine who is a licensed skydiver had been encouraging me for over a year to try it. I repeatedly told her no. I was afraid of flying. I had a fear of heights, I didn’t want to do anything that would risk my life. I said several times that you could not pay me to go skydiving. But as I was working through my grief—something that I felt was impossible—I wanted to try other things I felt were impossible. It started with cliff jumping, then parasailing. Naturally the next thing was skydiving … I was ready to face that fear.”

On a hot Monday, Carol and Justine trekked out to Skydive Perris to jump. Matt took Justine on her jump, and Carol jumped with Rom while Matt shot video. Both jumps went beautifully.

“Jumping out of that plane with Matt … the experience is almost indescribable,” says Justine. “He made me feel at ease and safe. We had a blast the entire time. He was also a great instructor, taking the time to teach me key points about skydiving as we made our way down to the ground. I’d do it again and again with him if I could. His giving heart and passion for the sport is so apparent, and I can only hope he gets to share it with everyone. He made this experience very memorable.”

Carol adds, “I wish more people knew that people with MS, or anyone with a disease or who is disabled, can go up and make a skydive. Even if they can’t land on their legs, Rom takes a thing and pulls up your legs for you. Next year what I want to do is a zipline and parasailing. It was absolutely wonderful. Exhilarating.”

Both women expressed the desire to skydive again. Justine said she would love to learn to jump on her own and get licensed, and Carol asked how she could pass on information to other disabled people who might like to skydive.

“I’m relieved we got the ball rolling with these two amazing women,” Matt says. “I’m excited for the future of the project.” He dreams of a network of drop zones, instructors and skydiving organizations working together to make the sport accessible to all who dream of the sky, of taking a leap, of tasting that breathtaking freedom.

“There is great metaphoric power in jumping out of a plane,” says Justine. “You feel powerful, fearless, limitless. If you can jump out of a plane, you can do anything. The feeling is liberating … you feel ready to take on anything. It’s pure joy.”

To donate, nominate someone, or read more about the Free-Fall Foundation, visit freefallfoundation.org.

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