- Associated Press - Sunday, June 4, 2017

GILLIAM, La. (AP) - Imagine free falling out of a plane that’s circling 10,000 feet above the ground - the adrenaline rush, the wind whipping through your hair at 120 miles per hour - then suddenly, with the tug of a string, you glide effortlessly through the clouds before planting your feet safely on the ground once again.

That’s exactly what Sara Simmonds, 98, experienced when she jumped to raise funds for cadets enrolled in Louisiana’s Youth Challenge Program, making her the oldest skydiver in the state.

Simmonds began planning her leap of faith, and enlisted a few close friends to jump with her. As the clouds cleared, excitement set in:

“You know, we’ve been talking about this for so long. The shock is all gone now,” she said. “Some people said they would give me money not to do this, but I told them I was jumping no matter what.”

Simmonds is known by many in central Louisiana for her philanthropic efforts and community involvement. As the founder of the Apple Pie Brigade and an active member of the Rotary Club and Junior League of Alexandria, she explained she has never let her age get in the way of her goals.

“Age is just a number. Do what you feel like doing,” she said. “Everyone serves in their own way. I think that’s the only way to live, really. Just be happy and help others as you can.”

Sara had this idea a few months back when we were all zip lining together,” said Jim Pate, a friend of Simmonds. “You know, the little stuff compared to this. Once we got through with that, she suggested we skydive. Well, here we are. We’re going to jump today.”

Simmonds said she chose this event to raise funds for YCP because she believes in its mission to serve a younger generation.

“They take these young people off the street who have no purpose and no goals, and they increase their education,” she said. “In six months, they have a goal and they have a better lifestyle … What better can we do than to help young people lead a better life?”

Donations raised by members of the Rotary Club totaled more than $2,000. The money will help fund scholarships for cadets to pursue higher education opportunities upon graduating YCP.

“Whatever it is, it’s a drop in the bucket to what the Youth Challenge Program needs. But it’ll help a little bit,” Simmonds said.

Sara has been a friend and supporter of the Louisiana National Guard and Youth Challenge Program for many years,” said Megan Ready, the public relations manager for YCP. “She does so much for the community and for central Louisiana, but she has also done so much for the cadets in our Youth Challenge Program, which we are grateful for.”

After the group took part in a safety course to learn the basics of a tandem skydive, it was time to jump.

Outfitted with a pair of goggles and a harness, Simmonds boarded the plane with a photographer and skydiving instructor. Her hands were inked with the letters “YCP” - an idea she says she got from Rotarian Magazine.

“I read a story about someone who jumped to raise money for polio. He wrote ‘stop polio’ on his hands, so I wrote this on mine. These young men and women are what is on my mind as I do this, as I jump,” she said.

Friends of Simmonds and YCP cadets from Camp Minden stood beside the plane, wishing her luck before she flew.

“It means so much to me that you all are here with me today,” Simmonds said. “I’ll see you when I land.”

After the plane disappeared above the clouds, it wasn’t long before laughter and squeals of joy could be heard as Simmonds and her instructor made their descent.

With her feet safely on the ground again, Simmonds shared smiles and hugs with the cadets, who were eager to find out if she enjoyed the jump.

“I feel wonderful,” she said. “I was worried about the landing more than anything, but when we pushed out of the plane, and you just fall … It was quite an experience. We were up above the clouds, and it was absolutely gorgeous. Gorgeous.”

Simmonds will celebrate her 99th birthday in September, and said she’s already thinking about what her next adventure will be.

“That’s what living is all about. Loving life and helping other people,” she said.

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