Jeff Fafoglia was one of the thousands of people who learned about life under the sea from famed French explorer Jacques Cousteau. Fascinated by the diversity of the aquatic world, Fafoglia took scuba diving lessons after high school and he was hooked.
"It was a whole new world," he said. Meanwhile, he was managing a hardware store in Rochester. "My brother and I talked about opening a sort of side business with diving stuff. And I noticed the stores in Mexico were showing twice the sales we were - so I traveled there.
"I was still running the store, but doing 'research,'" he said. Research took him to Florida, and he became a diving instructor. "So I was taking classes and working in a dive store, and I decided I'm not going back to hardware."
Fafoglia said he was thinking of opening a dive store off of the hardware store but then decided just to start from scratch.
In 1994, he broke ground and construction started on Adventure Dive & Travel on Stanton Street. Since then, the store has evolved into a regional dive center that draws diving clients from central Illinois, St. Louis, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa.
The center, in addition to the store stocked with the most state-of-the-art equipment, has an indoor heated training pool, classrooms, locker rooms with shower facilities and offices.
"We probably started bigger than we needed to," Fafoglia said. With his wife, Amber, and staffers who do every type of diving as well as water and snow skiing, mountain climbing and avalanche control, Fafoglia said he's found his niche in the dive and travel world.
"We teach about 100 types of certification here -- everything from underwater photography to night diving," he said. Several times a year the store runs dive trips for those who are taking their classes and holding true to the "Adventure" part of the business name. Longer dive trips are also offered. Some of the locations have included Bimini, Palau, the Grand Caymans and Bali.
Fafoglia estimated that he and Amber teach between 100 and 150 divers each year. He comes right out and tells people it's not a cheap sport, but the cost of the lessons and the equipment is worth it.
The store also offers birthday parties for youngsters that include a dunk in the pool in scuba equipment. On a recent Saturday, three parties were booked.
"We've found our niche. There's no doubt about that, and it was mostly through word of mouth," he said.
Most of the divers come back for additional certifications such as wreck diving or open-water diving.
"A lot of the skills are transferable to the next certification," he said, "for instance, if you want to do underwater photography, you need buoyancy skills."
He said the diving community in central Illinois is huge, and most divers know each other, and they know where the best diving scenery is.
"When we take dive trips, we make sure there's something for everyone. So if your significant other doesn't dive, or other family members don't dive, we still book things for them to do. We also do things together on the trips that don't include diving."
Through the years, he and Amber have worked out the best mix of diving, sightseeing, entertainment and adventure at each of the locations they visit.
"I love teaching. Taking someone to a location where you may have been a dozen times is still a tremendous high because you can just see on their face that they are fascinated and experiencing something wonderful. And on the dives, there are new things above the water and below. You may see 20 hammerhead sharks or sea turtles you've never seen before," he said.
He said he was amazed to learn he could be an instructor because he never thought he had that necessary mental component to teach.
"It's really an incredibly safe sport," he added. "In your lifetime, the chances are 13 percent greater that you'll be struck by lightning than injured while diving."
Fafoglia's love of teaching led him to the Diveheart Foundation, a foundation that teaches disabled veterans how to scuba dive.
A grant from the AMVETS Department of Illinois and the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs paid for training with the Diveheart Foundation. He worked with disabled veterans on how to work with mobility-challenged individuals.
"Everyone is mobility-equal in the water," he said. "Even if they end up diving just once, it still gives them that perspective that they can do it, and it introduces them to a whole new social circle."
Adventure Dive and Travel also maintains the equipment and lends support to 15 different search-and-recovery dive teams in the state including all three of the Illinois State Police dive teams.
"We can give them the basic dive training," he said. "The advanced stuff they get elsewhere, but we maintain their equipment for them."
One of the newest classes he will be offering is one of his favorites. It involves diving with the idea of marine research in mind. "I like that," he said, "It's a different segment, and it's a nice balance."
It's the Fafoglia version of protecting the environment he loves.
Family also owns Lost in Italy travel company
The Fafoglia family is from Italy, and Jeff and his brother have gone back several times. After a couple of trips back, Jeff Fafoglia said he and his brother decided to venture away from the village and go hiking in the mountains.
"That was real Italy and after that, we'd take more relatives and then we started bringing friends and they brought their friends. At that point, we decided, 'Hey, we should get paid for this,'" Fafoglia said.
And their travel company, Lost in Italy, was born.
Jeff said he and his brother, Steven, speak Italian, and he is an Italian citizen. "I guess the first trip back was to reacquire our roots and since then, we just love to keep going back."
Lost in Italy takes small tour groups to areas in Italy like Cinque Terre, Tuscany, the Dolomites, the canals of Venice, Sicily, Amalfi, Sorrento, Capri and the Alps.
"From our first trips back we absolutely made some of the best friends, and that's what we do when we take a tour; you meet our best friends," he said.
"They treat you well, they love to show off their Italy. You may take a cooking class on a farm or walk through a vineyard and meet the owner who will show you his wine.
"It's total immersion vacations, and we have the best time."
Lost in Italy is considering ski trips next.
Story published Friday, November 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 6 )