On an average school day, the prevailing sound at the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative (VWI) is the tinkering of tiny horological instruments.
The peaceful craft of watchmaking starkly contrasts with the turbulence of the armed forces, but it is the tranquil environment that is part of the attraction for veterans at this Odessa school, which provides training at no cost and is a second chance for men and women who were injured in the line of duty.
“It’s pretty much dead set in my head that this is what I want to continue doing,” says Giancarlo LaRusso, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and student at VWI. “I rolled the death dice with the Marine Corps. It was fun, I’ll admit it, but I got out of that.”
LaRusso and five other veterans are members of the inaugural class of VWI. Founded in 2010, the nonprofit collected grants and donations from George Washington University, Rowan University and the Middletown chapter of Hogs and Heroes in order to welcome students in 2017.
Last summer, the Swatch Group donated a whopping $140,000 worth of supplies. “The Swatch Group turned this school into a world-class school in one day,” says Sam Cannan, co-founder and chairman of the board.
The inaugural class of VWI has six members, and plans are in the works to create space for more students.//photos by Julia Lowndes
Cannan worked as a police officer and received his watchmaking education in Switzerland. After retiring, he modeled the idea for VWI after the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking, which provided training to disabled World War II veterans. When the Bulova School closed in 1993, Cannan saw the opportunity to continue its legacy.
VWI operates out of a former paramedic station. Though the school is small, Cannan is working on an expansion that includes a jewelry lab and an additional horology lab. The renovations will create space for 18 more students.
In the future, Cannan plans to build a school along U.S. 301 that will educate and house 54 veterans. “Watchmaking is about passion. A love of doing things that other people can’t do,” he says. “That’s why it fits so well with veterans. All the skills they lost when they got back here can be put into watchmaking.”
The school has several hundred on its waitlist. To be accepted to VWI, applicants must pass a dexterity test and display a desire to learn. “Sam always says, if you have one eye and one arm and the heart for it, he can turn you into a watchmaker,” says grant writer Lori Brower.
Deborah Katzmire, another volunteer, feels that working with veterans is a small way she can show her gratitude for their service. “It’s amazing because what they’ve done I couldn’t do,” she says. “So if a little bit of what I can do helps them, I’ll do it every day.”