By Tara Bradley Connell
As an instructor in Palm Springs, California, Kathy Peper had no idea that one day her future dive students would be some of the toughest people in the country – the men and women of the U.S. Marines Corp.
“I met some Marines that were interested in scuba diving, and for about six years I pursued the idea to the marine base, but it didn’t seem like it was going to happen,” she said. “Out of the blue, I got a call from the base asking me to teach. A week later I received a contract, and the rest is history.”
Without her dive shop on base, Peper started recruiting students at the PX – a common area on the base. Four years later, the 29 Palms Marine Base gave her a permanent location where she had access to everyone from just-out-of-boot camp to seasoned Marines and their families. To date, Peper estimates that the Marines make up 98% of her divers.
“My goal is to service the Marines and to get them out of the barracks as a way of giving them something to do that they wouldn’t normally do,” she says. “We are a resource for the Marines but also a family. They come here and talk to me about everything.”
And she’s right. From engagement ring shopping and wedding invitations to career counseling and car repairs – with help from Peper’s boyfriend – Peper’s students tend to stick around long after their C-Card is signed. For Peper, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We keep in touch with a lot of our Marines, and many come back to dive with us for our Catalina trips,” she says. “When they’re away we stay in touch by texting or Facebook. When they’re back in town, we’ll do anything we can from storing their stuff to letting them stay with us while they get situated. It’s a community more than a dive shop.”
That family atmosphere has made such an impact that one Marine changed his last name to Peper, saying she was like a mother to him. Another credits her with saving his life by using diving to help him get out of a dark place. It’s that sense of community that has turned the base’s community of divers into a family.
With such a great response from Marines wanting to try diving, Peper was inspired to host a weekly Try Scuba event – a program that introduces Marines to diving.
How it works: After signing up online, 20 Marines are scheduled every hour for an academics overview and quiz followed by pool work to familiarize them with the gear and introductory skills.
But it’s not just about diving for this group. Peper and her team also give their Marines a little bit of old-fashioned love. Whether it’s having a peanut butter and jelly station during class or a lesson on how to make killer breakfast burritos in the barrack’s microwaves, the Get Wet Scuba team makes it their mission that the Marines feel at home. And with a 50% sign-up ratio for PADI Open Water certifications after each event, they’re making an impact.
“I could do this every month, but we have to limit the amount of students we can accept,” Peper says. “I could have 100 or 50 students a month if we had enough instructors.”
With such a high demand for instructors, Peper notes the need for other dive operators to consider reaching out and creating a positive diving community among their local Marine bases. And while it didn’t happen overnight for Peper, she couldn’t be prouder of the extended dive family she’s built through her journey.
“Once I got here I realized these people are up on the base and a lot of the guys are confined to it because they don’t have vehicles,” she says. “Many are right out of boot camp with nothing to do and away from home. They are looking for stuff to do.”
When asked how others can follow in her footsteps, Peper’s motherly advice resembles a pep talk for one of her Marines.
“You just have to reach out and find out what the opportunities are,” she says. “This is a job for someone that wants to make life better for the Marines, not just to collect a paycheck. If that’s what you want, don’t give up.”
It’s that never-give-up attitude which is why Peper has become somewhat of a matriarch for her little dive shop in Palm Springs – and been able to create a place many Marines can call home.
For more on Peper and her Try Scuba program, visit getwetscubadivers.com.