Vertical Madness

Students sewing themselves into the sky




When you walk into the cavernous room at Robron Centre in Campbell River—which feels part warehouse, part manufacturing facility—there’s an energy that says “momentum.”

Teenagers are hard at work, clearly enjoying what they’re doing, laughing and joking with each other. Music pounds from speakers in the corners, and the students are hunched over sewing machines. The entrepreneurial program, known as Vertical Madness, was created by Rob MacNeill for youth.

“Industrial sewing has become somewhat of a lost art because people haven’t been willing to take on apprentices and train people,” says MacNeill. He understands they don’t want to train their future competition.

But MacNeill has never seen things that way. He wanted to bring industrial sewing, an essential skill for skydiving gear, to the school system. He’s been successful. This program counts as work experience that students put towards their graduation requirements, but it’s also an opportunity for them to develop important values and skills.

They start by learning how to take a sewing machine apart and put it back together, “because they need to know they can fix things when they break,” MacNeill says. He has no time for built-in obsolescence. Pretty quickly students move into designing and manufacturing.

“That gets their creative juices flowing,” he says, “and they start thinking about all the ways they could turn this into their own business. The whole idea is to make them into successful entrepreneurs.”

MacNeill also runs the Campbell River Skydive Centre at the Campbell River Airport. Not surprisingly, he’s incorporated skydiving into the sewing program. Many of the students have had their fair share of personal struggles, and skydiving, he says, is an amazing way for people to move past their fears—both physically and metaphorically—and open themselves up to finding out who they really are.

“You’d be surprised at how much more confidence someone has once they’ve jumped out of an airplane and had to save their own life,” MacNeill says. It certainly worked for Robron student Ember Becherer. Back in February of 2021, Becherer saw a poster for an essay contest. She wasn’t typically one for essays, but this particular contest had a prize of jumping out of an airplane, which she’d always wanted to try. The contest only required a short paragraph, so she whipped one up.

She was selected as one of the winners, and she went to talk to MacNeill about the prize. “But,” she said, “when I walked into this magical place, I knew I needed to be here for more than that.”

She’d done a little sewing in the past, but nothing like what she was about to get into. “I just can’t say thank you enough for what this place and this work has meant to me,” she says. “I feel so welcome here. We’ve formed a really tight group and it’s so nice to come into work and be with good friends and people who support me. I can be honest with them when I’m having a bad day. This is an amazing place. I’ve found myself here. I’ve found out that I’m creative and I’ve found out that I want to help people and that I can be a leader and that I love opportunities to step up to a challenge.”

The story is a similar one for fellow student Lily Gaskarth, who began the program a few months after Becherer. “It just came into my life exactly when I needed it,” Gaskarth says.

“The confidence I’ve gained in this program totally shows through in other areas of my life,” she continues. “I’d been doing a lot of personal development over the past couple of years, and this was really the final piece of the puzzle that makes me feel like a full person and that I have my life going in a good direction.”

Ken Blackburn, the Executive Director of the Campbell River Arts Council, sees what MacNeill is doing from a different angle. He has been helping MacNeill with various facets of the program, specifically in terms of outreach, volunteerism, and developing a summer artisan market out at the airport.

“We use the term ‘community development’ all the time, but does anyone really know what it means?” Blackburn asks. “It can be very difficult to define as it has so many moving parts.”

Whether it’s business and economic development, cultural development, multicultural relationships, social services, health, working with seniors, working with youth, or developing infrastructure—it’s all part of it.

“What Rob is doing is a great example of an unexpected entry point into how community development works,” Blackburn continues.

“He’s working with youth and giving them both personal and entrepreneurial skills through their industrial sewing program at Robron. Yet the entry point is through a specific sport—skydiving! Who knew? The experience of skydiving is creating positive momentum in their lives and is contributing to the forward momentum of the community, both through the business skills they are developing and through the volunteer work they are performing.”

So while the term “movement” might not immediately bring the image of falling from the sky to mind, or becoming the person you’re meant to be, or the community pulling together to move forward, maybe it should.

Motion, after all, is a journey. We move together and it is vitally important that we bring each other along for the ride. Or the fall, as it were.