A cramped, isolated corner in Campbell River’s Robron Centre, tattered with industrial sewing machines, parachutes and a wall of handbags looks like a film set or military warehouse more than a place that may give high school children a future outside of academics.
But Rob MacNeill doesn’t see it that way. In fact, the proprietor of “Vertical Madness,” an industrial sewing trade program in Campbell River, sees that by opening the door to trades, the children he mentors open more.
“We put these children in front of doors,” MacNeill with a smile as we tour around the back rooms where it all happens. “Every door they open, they want to open two more.”
Having been involved with an industrial sewing program since 2017, he was first approached by now Healthy Schools Coordinator Drew Williams, to teach a class of six. From there, Outdoor Education Teacher Steve Joyce of Timberline High asked MacNeill to show his class how to sew up camping equipment, be it tents, sleeping bags or backpacks.
That started a regular filing in of students, with MacNeill teaching these children how to sew and repair everything, from car interiors to boat tops. MacNeill says the idea of a skilled trade is an art form that tends to be lost.
“Some of these kids I got at first, they weren’t really fitting into school,” said MacNeill. “The last sewing trade school in Toronto, it closed up about 10 years ago. We’re just trying to open the doors to other aspects that they wouldn’t normally get in school.”
It was in 2020, however, that things really went to the extreme. MacNeill, an experienced military paratrooper with over two decades of experience, bought into the skydiving operations at Campbell River airport. It was then that MacNeill’s work experience kids starting asking questions.
“They were asking questions about skydiving. I said ‘you wanna skydive?’ So, we ran a couple of courses for (Joyce’s) class, and started getting them into skydiving,” said MacNeill. “You could see a real change in these kids, all of a sudden they are dealing with a lot of fear an anxiety, and then just going skydiving. It changes you.”
What makes it more remarkable is that MacNeill is receiving little to no compensation for his class. Covering everything from sewing up parachute patches, to packing the equipment and going through a jump course. He pays the work experience class — ranging in age from 15 to 18 — up to their solo skydiving licence, at the tune of $2,000 per child. MacNeill says he’s invested close to $100,000 to continue running the program.
“During COVID, the School Board said they were in a financial bind. They said if I want to continue, I’d have to pay rent,” said MacNeill, who’s rent is upwards of $2,000 a month. “I’m strictly here volunteering.”
You can tell from the sound of his voice that for MacNeill, this mentorship really hits home. Growing up with a single mother who was an emergency nurse, he left school at 17 to join the military.
“I was exactly where these kids were — single parent, mom was a full time nurse. She was never home. At 14, I was already working on fishing and dive boats,” said MacNeill. “With this, we can show these kids sewing, so they can go into any boat shop in town and land a job.”
He says the biggest thing for this generation, is that they’re too busy missing life.
“I grew up in a great time. I didn’t have social media and fentanyl to deal with,” said MacNeill. “I take children from three schools — Carihi, Robron and Timberline — they didn’t know each other. But now they are all part of a group — they are all on the group chat on whatever app it is. But it’s not them saying ‘You go to different school, I don’t like you.’ Now it’s ‘you like skydiving, let’s build on this.’ These barriers are coming down. It’s all about breaking these barriers down.”
For more info on Vertical madness, visit http://www.facebook.com/verticalmadness.ca