Texas army veteran turns donated Christmas trees into canes for other veterans
'They've given so much for this country that I want to give something back to them,' says Jamie Willis
This first time Jamie Willis gave away one of his hand-made, personalized wood canes to a fellow veteran, he says they both cried.
"It was just an overwhelming feeling of joy and happiness," he told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
Since 2016, the U.S. army veteran has been making canes out of recycled Christmas trees in his hometown of Copper's Cove, Texas, and giving them away free of charge to other veterans in need.
But this year, it "totally blew up," he said. So far, he has received nearly 1,400 trees. One person drove more than 300 kilometres to hand-deliver their tree and thank him personally, he said.
The idea to build custom canes for veterans came to Willis after he started needing one himself. Eight years in the army left him with a back injury, and he relies on a cane to walk.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs gave him several metal canes, he said, but they kept breaking.
"The trust in those canes just wasn't there anymore. And, to me, those canes are ugly," he said. "They have no style."
That's when he turned to the Florida-based non-profit Free Canes for Veterans, run by Oscar Morris, which builds wood canes for veterans.
But Morris's list was full, so he told Willis to try making a cane himself.
"At the time, I knew nothing about making canes, but he walked me through step-by-step on how to make one," Willis said. "And next thing I know, I'd made one."
After that first experience, Willis began giving canes away to other veterans.
Eventually, he founded the organization Cane for Veterans in Central Texas. So far he has given away more than 200 canes, shipping them as far away as Germany.
Willis personalizes each one. He ads a unit insignia, branch of service or anything else a veteran requests.
- AS IT HAPPENS: Christmas tree seller plans to gift his land to his community
- AS IT HAPPENS: This war correspondent was 'the voice of many soldiers in Afghanistan'
Willis said it's hard to put into words how appreciative the veterans are when they receive their cane. That's why he will continue his work, he said.
"They've given so much for this country that I want to give something back to them, something that shows, you know, you're not forgotten," he said.
Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Rachel Levy-Mclaughlin.