SAN DIEGO — As Debbie Soliz begins her presentation at Jefferson Elementary School in North Park, the first- and third-graders gaze at her as though she's a creature from outer space.
All eyes are riveted on the 32-year-old quadriplegic as she talks.
"I didn't think a cripple could talk normal," a 6-year-old whispers to her friend in astonishment.
Six boys in the back of the auditorium point and giggle at Soliz's wheelchair and all its apparatus. But the laughs end abruptly as the guest speaker tells about a foolish moment in her life that instantly changed her from a healthy teen-ager into a quadriplegic.
"When I was 15, a friend dared me to jump from a cliff into the ocean," she tells her audience. "I didn't want to do it. I was frightened out of my wits. There were signs all around that warned against jumping and diving and a scuba diver even yelled up to me not to jump. But I didn't want to be called a chicken in front of my friends, so I did it."
Today, 17 years later, the memory of that awful moment at the cliffs of Corona Del Mar remains crystal clear to the Rancho Penasquitos resident who uses herself as an example to spread the word on ways to prevent spinal cord injuries.
Soliz has spoken to 15,000 local students from kindergarten to senior high as program director of Grossmont Hospital's year-old community education program, "Feet First, First Time." The 50-minute presentation, which includes a film, is based on a Pensacola, Fla., pilot program designed to cut the number of diving accidents there.
Initiated by Grossmont Hospital physician Sidney Tolchin and implemented by registered nurses Ann Rohlf and Doreen Casuto, the local program, unique in San Diego County, is booked solid at area schools each Monday and Wednesday through the December holidays.
The program's success is largely credited by school and hospital officials to the vibrant Soliz, who in addition to speaking at each presentation, is completing a master's degree and is the mother of a 2-year-old son, Allan.
She relishes dispelling the myth that a disabled person can't have a full, satisfying life.
"Just because I'm paralyzed from the chest down doesn't mean I can't do anything," she tells her young audience. Then she invites them to come up close to her and check out her special wheel chair and play with the mechanical hand splint she wears to feed herself, write and drive a specially equipped van.
At first only a few approach.
"Come on, I don't bite," she laughs.
The assembly ends with kids crawling all over her, having a great time operating the pincers on the hand splint. They're fascinated with the technology that enables her to function and seem amazed that she can do such normal things as go to school, drive, shop and even have a baby.
"Did you really have a baby?" one girl asks in disbelief.
To prove it, Soliz pulls out photos of her son that are immediately passed around.
"The hardest part is not being able to change him, give him a bath or help him in the middle of the night when he cries, like your moms and dads do," she replies. "But I'm able to hold him a lot, and now that he's bigger, he climbs up on my chair and we play games on the tray in front of me.
"Last week we were able to take a walk around the block for the first time together," she says. "We held hands the whole way. But I was still scared to death that he'd run out into the street."
A flurry of questions follow.
"How do you go to the bathroom?" a third-grade boy asks.
"That's when I need help from an aide."
"How does your friend feel who dared you to jump off the cliff?"
"It wasn't her fault. I did this to myself," Soliz answers firmly. "That person was my best friend back then and she is still my friend now."
"How do you drive your van?"
"With fingertip controls."
"How do you climb stairs?"
"I don't. I avoid them."
"How do you put on a jacket?"
And on it goes well past the scheduled finish time.
A few days later at Diegueno Junior High School in Encinitas, a group of students tell her she's made them more aware of safety precautions, but one 14-year-old boy gets right to the point.
"We're all into skateboarding," he tells her. "But we don't wear safety helmets because it's dorky, and we don't want our friends calling us nerds."
"Is it more cool to be in a wheelchair the rest of your life?" Soliz shoots back.
That starts a discussion on peer pressure, and the youngsters freely admit how hard it is to back off from daredevil stunts that they're egged into. But they promise to try.
"Thanks for making us realize how stupid it is when we do dangerous tricks on our skateboards," one boy tells her.
"I'm not going to be afraid anymore when people call me chicken," another student vows.