FEATURE: Everyday heroes take the leap for a good cause
On Sept. 22, 60 ‘superheroes’ rappelled down a 22-storey Montreal skyscraper in support of a worthy cause: to promote the development and community engagement of the nation’s children with disabilities.
This impressive display of courage and commitment, organized by Montreal’s Drop Zone 2012, took place at the BNP Tower, a building best known for the memorable monument, “The Illuminated Crowd,” which stands at the its entrance.
The money raised was used to support Easter Seal Quebec, an organization that helps children with special needs gain confidence and become active members of society. This is done through community engagement opportunities, such as summer camps. It also provides equipment, normally too expensive for most families, that allows their children to make the most of their capabilities.
Since 2005, more than 2,300 ‘superheroes’ have joined the Superhero Club for Easter Seals, raising more than $3.76 million to help people with disabilities across the country. This year, the Drop Zone event has taken place in 15 different Canadian cities. By scaling down prominent skyscrapers, many remarkable individuals have worked to raise more than $2 million dollars for the foundation.
Among these superheroes was McGill’s Associate Vice-Principal (University Services) James Nicell. Trying to match the feats that thousands of disabled children and their families accomplish every day, Nicell rose to the occasion and raised more than $4,000 for the cause.
Rather than looking for the opportunity to undertake such a challenge, it was the opportunity that came knocking on Nicell’s door—or in his particular case, his window.
“I was sitting in my office [located on the 11th floor of the CIBC building], and suddenly somebody goes by my window… and I thought ‘wow that’s pretty neat.’” Impressed by the undertaking of that courageous climber, Nicell and the University Services group decided to contribute to the Drop Zone’s endeavor.
Unlike going down one side of a building, which is over in 10 minutes, families with children with disabilities know that they’re in it for life.
“I think we’re a pretty tight community of people, and so I pitched this idea to a bunch of people who work with me [at University Services].”
Nicell never planned on scaling down the building himself.
“The idea … was that people [would] nominate those who [they thought] would [do it]. Those people would then choose whether to accept the nomination. Then, we would all vote. Whoever would get the most votes [would get] this opportunity, and we would raise the funds to make it happen,” recalls Nicell.
“I went on vacation and while I was away … someone decided it should be me that goes on the side of the building. When I arrived back on Monday morning after being away for two weeks, my assistant Clara had a big smile on her face. I think my heart just fell off my chest at that point.”
While overwhelmed and surprised, Nicell found the strength to rise to the challenge. “I had never seen myself doing this…but I kept thinking to myself: ‘if I don’t do it, I’m gonna regret it. It’s a good cause and it’s the adventure of a lifetime.’”
Those who know Nicell would agree that he is not the type of person that one would expect to see casually dropping down a 22-story building. “I had never done anything like this before. I’m not comfortable with amusement parks, and I’m afraid of heights,” he said.
In addition, Nicell had no previous climbing experience whatsoever. He had no option but to learn all that there is to know about rappelling with only a few days left until the event.
“There was a practice day down to a rock climbing place, and they gave me about 10 minutes of training [on] how the gear worked,” he said.
Nicell practiced by dropping off a 40-foot high rock; nothing comparable to the 300-feet-tall Tower from which he would later have to descend.
“I went down those 40 feet, and then they just told me ‘alright, you’re done. See you on Thursday.’ It was a little over 20 minutes total that I spent.”
What, then, gave Jim Nicell the courage to undertake such a challenge? Easter Seals Quebec is a cause that is dear to his heart. “My wife and I have always said that we’d like to give back … as a family, we have all the resources of the world, but there are families around me struggling without any resources,” said Nicell.
“Unlike going down one side of a building, which is over in 10 minutes, families with children with disabilities know that they’re in it for life. It’s not something that you can just cure or take a certain bit of therapy and the problem goes away. It’s not like that at all. They need all our support in any way.”
It was this motivation that drove Nicell to take his first steps down the 300-foot high building, entrusting his life to a two-inch thick rope. Standing at the roof’s edge with a McGill flag fluttering on his back, Nicell recalls experiencing one of the most intense moments of his life.
“The hardest part was when they call you over … I could hear the noise of the crowd at the bottom as I was standing on the edge. Putting your feet on the edge and then just [letting your body] go, just holding on to your life with a rope, that was really something,” Nicell said.
After taking this first step down, Nicell began his descent. The building mirrored a scenic view of the city as he hesitantly pulled himself down. “Some people had told me when I said I was afraid of heights, ‘don’t worry, just look at the surface in front of you [as you go down].’ But what they didn’t account for was the fact that this [was] a mirror-glass building. When you’re looking at the surface, you see your face and you see the wide horizon.”
At mid-point, he was told to wave at the crowd below, an action that left him almost breathless.
“Just the act of taking your hands off the rope and turn around and wave, to let go and turn around … looking straight down on the floor, while looking at the mirror surface on the building gave the impression, almost like I was floating.”
After 10 minutes of great tension, Nicell’s feet finally reached the ground, followed by applause from his family and friends. Looking back, this warm support, as well as the satisfaction of having contributed to such a worthy cause, made Nicell feel fortunate to have had this experience. “It was a phenomenal experience. I don’t regret doing it.”
James stresses, however, that this was in no way a one-man initiative. “This was a team event that was put together by some wonderful considerate people in University Services. They made it all happen … I’m incredibly proud of the support of the group here. Having all of them standing below … was really nice. It feels good to be part of a supportive community,” Nicell said.
He also praised the courage and achievement of Montreal’s heroes and heroines, who collectively raised over $125,000 for Easter Seals Quebec.