Helena Independent Record: Capital High seniors build custom fly rods for charity

Glancing back over his shoulder at 15 gleaming fly rods, Capital High senior Kreston Stevens told the crowd assembled in the machining shop Tuesday evening that he and the five other rod builders had learned more than just job skills.

“We’ve been part of some really great, amazing projects, but by far this project has outdone anything we’ve ever done both in complexity and meaning,” he said.

The fly rods built by the Capital High machining program will go to Big Hearts Under the Big Sky, a charity dedicated to taking veterans, children with life threatening illnesses and women recovering from breast cancer out fishing and hunting.

Stevens and fellow seniors Keaton Kurokawa, Mike Selva, Pat Severs, Cole Prater and Barron Culver presented the rods and were honored by Sen. Steve Daines and Montana Outfitter and Guides Association executive director Mac Minard at a barbecue Tuesday.

“We see that we’re not taking chips away from some metal, we’re making a difference in people’s lives,” Stevens said. “We tried to make each one as good as we possibly could and we tried to incorporate our work as best we could to make a memory for them and their families. It’s the least we could do.”

The rods were built from blanks with premium cork handles and reel seats decorated with Big Hearts logos and anodized in bright blue and pink. They will go to Big Hearts participants and fundraisers.

The seniors struggled to determine the number of hours spent inside and outside of class designing and constructing the rods. They began the project at the beginning of spring semester and finished only recently, they said.

Culver had first visited the class as an eighth grader and knew then he wanted to learn design.

Kurokawa said he had similar amazement seeing the machines for the first time and what they could do.

Several credited teacher Jim Weber’s description of the program as a major reason for enrolling.

Weber shifted credit back to the seniors, saying they were the best group he has seen in two decades of teaching.

The Big Hearts program has served more than 320 people involving 32 outfitters with $327,500 donated trips since 2008. Of the veterans who have participated, 70 percent suffer from PTSD, he said.

The first rod will go to a 15-year-old boy suffering from a rare bone cancer, who has had a longtime dream of visiting Montana to go fly-fishing, Minard said.

“Consider the outfitter industry for a minute and then realize they’re uniquely positioned to provide high quality outdoor hunting and fishing experiences in a therapeutic-type setting because they’ve got the insurance, they’ve got the infrastructure, they’ve got the knowledge,” Minard said. “They’re a highly skilled group of people who were trying to discover a way to give something back.”

Daines said he was amazed to learn that the Capital High welding and machining program is the only one of its kind in the Rocky Mountain region and only one of 23 in the nation. The program was recognized as a top manufacturing education program by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Foundation.

The manufacturing sector is important for Montana’s economy in providing good-paying jobs, and Montana affords a lifestyle that helps attract and retain employees, especially keeping Montana students in-state after graduation, Daines said.

Getting the word out about programs available to veterans and others in need was a major reason for attending Tuesday’s ceremony, he said. Montanans have long known the healing benefits of the outdoors, he added.

“It’s more than teaching them to make a living, it’s teaching them to make a difference in another person’s life, and that’s the connection here with the Big Hearts program,” Daines told the crowd.

Daines reflected on a recent trip to Iraq and the needs of veterans returning from battle.

“Spending some time with a fly rod in your hand or spending some time out chasing an elk or a deer is exactly the right prescription here to bring them back, back to their families,” he said.