Paul Robitaille was 88 years old when he dove from the sky for the first time. After cruising up 13,500 feet in a turbine, multi-engine aircraft, he willingly fell 100 miles an hour toward the earth. As he flew faster and faster — about 40 seconds per mile after he cleared the clouds — he rapidly closed the more than three-mile distance between himself and the ground before him. It was terrifying, to be sure, but with the help of the professional skydiver who was safely attached to him, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life.
Robitaille’s interest in skydiving began two years ago, when he attended an event called Leap for Autism at Skydive the Ranch in Gardiner. Although he initially went just to support the cause as an observer, he soon became immersed in the thrill of it all.
“I saw people come down and they were so enthusiastic when they landed. I told my daughter, ‘you know, I can do that!’ She looked at me and said, ‘What?’ I said ‘Yes, in fact I’m going to do it,’” Robitaille recalls.
Photo courtesy Paul Robitaille
Now, he’s ready for a repeat performance this spring at Greystone’s Leap at Skydive the Ranch in Gardiner. While Robitaille is happy to support such a meaningful cause, he’s also proud to give back to the organization which has helped his son for the past 30 years. In the Hudson Valley, Greystone serves over 600 individuals on the Autism spectrum and other individuals with disabilities across five counties.
“The heart of Greystone is really the game changer,” says Sara Greenberg-Hoye, the Chief Advancement Officer at Greystone Programs, Inc. “The funds that are raised [from the event] go directly back to the individuals for expressive arts programs, music therapy, art therapy, pet therapy, and other services. [The funds] enrich the lives of the individuals we support and give them the opportunity to be their best selves.”
At that initial Greystone’s Leap event, Robitaille was so excited that he signed up for this year’s Leap for Autism on the spot. Until that point, he had never considered skydiving before and was afraid of heights; yet he decided to take the plunge anyway. In fact, his decision forced him to confront that fear, which, at one point in his life, was so overwhelming that he couldn’t even climb a ladder to paint the walls on the third floor of someone’s house.
“I wouldn’t do that because I was afraid of heights,” Robitaille notes. “I think somehow this [Greystone event] is different. There is more purpose for it, it’s satisfying, and you just do it. Every once in a while, there are things in your life and you just do it.”
Photo courtesy Paul Robitailleâ€‹
A camera attached to a professional photographer captured Robitaille’s first leap into the air. When asked about that initial jump, he described the feeling of the wind blowing at a fast pace and how he and his co-jumper broke through the clouds shortly after exiting the plane.
“You have goggles and it’s like being in a hurricane,” he says. “You can see for miles. The things you have normally looked at, the Shawangunks, the airport at Stewart Field, and the Hudson River, you see it [all] in a whole different light.”
Robitaille’s fundraising goal this year is to raise $5,000. “It is not an event that you have to spend hours of hours to raise funds. You are doing it by committing yourself to something that takes 10 minutes,” he says. “By the time you lean out and you’re on the ground, you have made your contribution.”
The 4th Annual Leap for Autism is scheduled for Saturday, April 27 (rain date: May 11). During the event, both individuals or teams can sign up for a tandem or virtual skydiving experience. Robitaille and his jump team, The Perfect Partnership, accept donations via their page here.