Army veteran Jamie Willis suffered for years with PTSD and a nagging back injury after an accident in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during Operation Desert Storm, in which he served as a cavalry scout. The injury, which rendered him briefly paralyzed and now disabled, left him feeling lost and without purpose.
But three years ago, after Willis began hand-crafting canes for other disabled vets like himself, this woodworking labor of love turned his life, and his outlook about humanity, around.
“I went through depression bad. There were times when I almost took my own life,” Willis, 50, tells PEOPLE. “Making the canes actually brought me back from the brink of suicide. I don’t know what it was, but I think this is my actual calling.”
Willis, a California native who lives in Copperas Cove, Texas, says he has made 222 canes since 2016. He advertises his organization’s services on a Facebook page where anyone — veteran or not — can fill out a form for a free cane. He accepts donations of recycled Christmas trees, of which he’s received 1,500 and counting. The trees are stripped of branches with a chainsaw and dried for about six months before being sanded and turned into a proper cane shape. One cane takes a day to five days to complete.
“They are totally custom-made, down to the slightest detail a person wants,” says Willis, who adds that his waiting list has now grown to about 400 people.
To keep up, he is teaching friends and family who have eagerly pitched in to learn and assist.
Willis had no experience making canes when he started out. After he sought his own free cane from his friend Oscar Morris, who made them for vets in Florida, Willis was told the waiting list was full. Morris encouraged Willis to “believe in yourself” and make his own. So he went to the street curb, cut a limb off a discarded tree left for trash pick-up, and began to try.
The effort was satisfying. And Morris told Willis to make another and give it away. “It was the ultimate feeling to see the joy in somebody’s else’s face to get just a simple piece of wood so they can put down that ugly metal cane,” Willis recalls. “To see them stand proud with it and treat it like a piece of artwork, and for them to almost go into tears because I’d taken the time to make them something for my heart, it meant so much.”
Monica Garza, a family friend who cares for her father, also a disabled vet, works alongside Willis to keep his schedule organized. She keeps his calendar, answers calls, and brings order to a group of steadfast volunteers who have watched the Canes for Veterans Central Texas project grow.
“To help all these people and to see how they are all helping us — it just shows that there is community still. It’s out there. People want to get involved,” says Garza.
Skylar Kline, another longtime friend of the family who acts as treasurer for Willis’ operation, agrees and says the outpouring of community support has left her “speechless.” She is also heartened to see how the appreciation has helped Willis feel better about himself.
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“There was a time in his life where he was dealing with some really bad mental stuff. This process getting his mind off of it and doing things for other people has made him a lot better,” Kline tells PEOPLE. “[He knows] that his service and the service of others is valued. He feels and I feel that sometimes the veterans don’t get enough appreciation and they deserve all of that that we are sharing.”
Donations of wood as far away as Alaska and Wisconsin — from cedar to pear branches, from diamond willow to black oak — have poured in over the holiday season from people who have heard of his work and want to help.
As interest grows, Willis hopes to be able to build a warehouse where he can scale his efforts and have some room to expand. Currently, his workshop is his garage, and it has become a gathering spot for neighbors and friends who come watch and also learn.
With that, the fight has returned to a former soldier, who says the gifts he gives to others, to help them get around stylishly, have been returned to him ten-fold.
“It’s like I’m overwhelmed with joy and happiness,” Willis tells PEOPLE with pride. “With as much bad as you see going on in the world, I thought that nobody cared about anybody. But this shows me that most people do care about others. With everybody’s outpouring of love to me, I want to do more.”
He adds: “I’m not going to give up. Now I feel like there are people who are depending on me — so I can’t give up.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.