Neil Amonson has a pretty impressive résumé, to say the least. A veteran of both the U.S. Air Force and the GoPro Bomb Squad (a legendary four-person demonstration team that traveled the world to paraglide, skydive and BASE jump), Amonson was living the dream, for sure, and he had an awesome time. But come to find out, he wanted more. Specifically, Amonson wanted those high-flying efforts to be really meaningful. And he had an idea of how he wanted to do it.
“As a demonstration skydiver, you are more of an entertainer,” Amonson noted, “and I wanted to connect.” He explained, “When I was with the Bomb Squad, I always felt it was a bit anticlimactic when we would land. We had created a really special moment—a moment with an opportunity to connect attached to it—but once we were on the ground, our job would be done. It was always really fun and rewarding, but I wanted to do more, to use the act of human flight to make a difference.”
To do that, Amonson knew he was going to have to be more than just a demo-team skydiver. He developed his message—inspired by the process he himself used to carve out a career at the highest level of skydiving—and started to commit his ideas to paper. In time, he built an interactive presentation that uses demonstration skydiving as the eye-popping, look-at-me opener that gets his young audience’s undivided attention. Now a fully operational nonprofit coalition, Jump 4 Joy organizes free, fully insured, Federal Aviation Administration-approved demonstration skydives into open areas at schools, community centers and public greenspaces.
“We are not just an entertainment program,” he said. “We are an educational program for youth. The skydive is simply how we arrive there. It gets the kids to put their phones down and open up their hearts and minds and have a conversation that would be more difficult to have if we were standing at the front of an auditorium.”
Jump 4 Joy’s program is called “Dream, Plan, Do.” The foundational idea behind Jump 4 Joy is that kids are really easy to inspire. They’re inspired by athletes, celebrities, actors and movies, but since they don’t necessarily know what to do with that information, it’s very quickly lost. Amonson built his program to help give them the tools to keep it going.
“We want to leave the kids with an ability they don’t learn in school, which is how to take the ideas that they’re inspired by and make them reality,” Amonson explained. “We break it down into three steps—dreaming, planning and doing—because each kid in the audience is usually good at one or two of them but rarely all three, and you need all three to make your dream real. We have the kids identify themselves as a dreamer, a planner or a doer and then identify the steps that they’re going to be really good at and the steps where they’re going to need to ask for help. We use skydiving to illustrate what happens when you successfully use teamwork to combine all three.”
The first thing you notice at a Jump 4 Joy event is that the presentation is very interactive. It doesn’t feel at all like a school assembly; instead, it feels distinctly like a field trip has just landed on the playing field. Jump 4 Joy’s audiences up to this point have been young—elementary and middle-school students (though the project is keen to expand into older age groups). As such, the program embraces the freewheeling learning style of youth, helping the kids visualize each step of the process using colorful, tactile, relatable materials: beach balls, marbles and colorful powder thrown jubilantly into the air.
“I don’t want to be ‘the adult telling them things,’ because adults, obviously, don’t know everything, either,” Amonson laughed. “We work to keep the message fun and simple and memorable, always emphasizing the importance of the process of just trying things, not worrying that what you’re doing is not important or too big or too small. That process of going through life can be really fun and lead to interesting career paths and vocations and relationships. It all points back at reclaiming creativity.”
According to Amonson, that creativity is critically endangered. “A lot of the messages these kids are getting from the media, from their devices and from the systems they were raised in,” he explained, “is there are certain things they are supposed to do with their lives and that their own ideas don’t count. They look around for direction regarding what they should be doing with their lives as opposed to looking inward and at the complementary strengths of the people around them.”
“Nothing we are saying hasn’t been said before,” Amonson noted, “but we say it our way. Whatever route they choose, we want these kids to feel that same courage that we have as skydivers and the passion that has given us this really rewarding way to express ourselves.”
“It may just make a small impact,” he continued, “but the more healthy, big-picture conversations you have with young people, the more likely they’ll be empowered to make big-picture decisions about where to take their lives, and they won’t paint themselves into a corner. At the very least, they won’t stress as much about the things that seem important at the time but really aren’t, the things that end up melting into your life story anyway.”
So far, the feedback from participants, schools and students has been stellar. In five years, Amonson would like to see Jump 4 Joy doing events more regularly, to expand beyond the project’s hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah, and to connect with audiences in older age groups. To that end, the organization is actively seeking partnerships on all levels: C-licensed, D-licensed and PRO-rated jumpers (especially ladies with PRO ratings), donors, manufacturers, drop zones, video editors and grant writers. (Right now, every penny of donations is channeled directly into operations.)
“Skydivers are the most important resource we have,” Amonson said. “Skydivers get it. I don’t have to give them the sales pitch on why this is a good way to talk to young people. Also, the jumps are really fun and in terms of skydiving demos, they are super low-stress. Plus, you feel great for, like, three days afterward, because it is so fun to combine jumping with helping.”
“Jump 4 Joy is inclusive,” he concluded. “It is not an exclusive team at all. Anyone can be a part of this. If you have a passion for helping inspire kids and you want to be part of what we’re doing, we are stoked to find a way to bring you in.”
To find out how you can be a part of Jump 4 Joy, reach out through the organization’s website, jump-4-joy.org.
About the Author
Annette O’Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.