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Leap of faith at 19,000 feet celebrates women’s rights

By The Health News Team | March 21, 2023
Sharp Grossmont Hospital social worker Kiara Baugh skydiving

Sharp Grossmont Hospital social worker Kiara Baugh set a women’s vertical formation skydiving world record with 99 other women. Photo credit: Ewan Cowie

During the week of Thanksgiving 2022, many of us shopped and gathered for our Thursday feast. We scored deals on Black Friday and used the long weekend to bust out our strings of lights and get rolling on the holiday décor.

Kiara Baugh, MSW, a social worker at Sharp Grossmont Hospital Emergency Department, had slightly different plans. She packed up her gear, headed to Arizona and for five days straight, worked on the best way to jump out of a plane at 19,000 feet in an attempt to set the women’s vertical formation skydiving world record with 99 other fierce ladies.

A record attempt to celebrate women’s rights

The event, called Project 19, was created to honor the women’s suffrage movement, or the right to vote. The centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women voting rights in 1920, was in 2020 but the pandemic delayed the project until the skydivers regrouped — literally — in 2022. In the week leading up to the record attempt, Kiara, who has been with Sharp Grossmont since 2015, and her comrades practiced in an indoor wind tunnel facility in smaller groups and would ultimately shatter a world record.

The first commemorative jump was Nov. 25, 2022, the day after Thanksgiving. That day, the skydivers completed a 72-woman formation, representing the 72 years it took to get from the first women’s rights convention — the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention — to the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment.

The following day, all 100 women gathered for the big record attempt. The number to beat was a 65-woman formation, a record set in 2016. They nailed it by a long shot. With each jump, they kept building with more women latching on. By building — and building some more — they reached 96, then 97, with just three of the women unable to grab onto the formation.

However, records must be verifiably official, and the judges couldn’t find the angle they needed to verify the higher number. But it was a record nonetheless.

“The official record going in the books is 80 women,” says Baugh. “But unofficially, in our hearts, we know we got to 97.”

Making history — and meeting one of its descendants

As if the thrill of being a part of a record-setting jump wasn’t enough, the significance of it made it a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Baugh and the other 99 skydivers. Women make up just 14% of skydivers in the U.S., so being among so many fellow daredevils added even more to the experience.

The group represented 22 countries and included an architect, artificial intelligence (AI) engineer, mortgage banker and neuroscience professor. They were just a small sampling of those who came together and held hands while falling at around 160 miles per hour — all to celebrate women.

“This was more than a challenge to break a world record, it was to highlight how far women around the world have come in equality and rights,” says Baugh. “It's inspiring the next generation of young girls by showing them that women can do big, bold, brave things.”

And there were more thrills to come. During the week of the event, the organizers coordinated a video call for the skydivers, who found themselves virtually face-to-face with history. On the call was the great, great granddaughter of Elizabeth Stanton, a writer and activist who was a leader of the women’s rights movement in the U.S. during the mid to late 19th century.

“She was there to give us words of encouragement, then pulled out a plaster cast of a handshake that took place between her great, great grandmother and Susan B. Anthony, who drafted the 19th Amendment,” Baugh says. “It was incredible.”

Might as well … jump!

Skydiving may have been a pre-determined passion for Baugh. When asked how to say her first name, Kiara, Baugh laughs. “The middle syllable is pronounced ‘air,’ as in, well … ‘AIR’!” she says.

If that’s a little far-fetched, Kiara’s background in the military surely had an impact on the desire to push her limits and display her mental fortitude. Her experience created a path to health care as well. Kiara served in the Army as a medical service corps officer and was deployed to Kuwait. Her time in the National Guard in Virginia included work in the Office of the Joint Surgeon.

When her military service ended in 2014, she came to San Diego State University, where she studied social work. She recalls the feeling of needing a new “hobby” at the time. After trying out helicopters, skeet shooting and river kayaking, Baugh upped her game, and — no pun intended — landed on skydiving.

“I did my first jump with two coaches,” says Baugh. “It’s the most thrilling thing I’ve ever experienced.”

She continued her training and eventually became licensed to jump on her own. Like any extreme sport, skydiving demands laser focus and being always present, which is ultra important when jumping in a formation where divers are locking hands. One move can set off an unwanted chain reaction.

Sports psychology and mindfulness are invaluable tools, Baugh says. She has used a Reiki professional to help with mental blocks and anxiety. “When you’re in the airplane, you have a 20-minute ride up before the jump — you have to stay focused and visualize.”

Inspiration for her patients

Medical social workers like Kiara serve as a liaison for patients who need help connecting with outside resources to help them with life challenges, such as mental health, socioeconomic, housing, substance use dependency and other concerns. They are often called on to help with sensitive issues and provide a shoulder to lean on for patients in times of crisis.

“Advocating for women’s rights is right up a social worker’s alley,” says Baugh.

In her role, she sees cases involving domestic violence, homelessness and trafficking, among others. She says she sometimes uses her skydiving combined with advocacy as an analogy with patients she is trying to help out of difficult situations.

“It’s an extreme sport that you try to make as safe as possible,” says Baugh. “You build a necessary trust and confidence in yourself because it might help you save your own life. I try to instill that in patients —they can take control of their lives and can trust in themselves to do the right thing.”

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