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Odessa watchmaker school for disabled vets expanding with industry, community help

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VWI graduation disabled veterans

VWI graduation on April 12: (L-R) Rick Aubin, instructor; Jonathan Dunn, Coast Guard; Giancarlo LaRusso, Marine Corps; Sam Cannan; Jason Adams, Army; and Don Morton, Air Force.

By Peter Osborne
DBT Editor

Sam Cannan’s office wall lists more than 100 job openings from companies desperate for watchmakers and watch-repair technicians that he hopes to fill with students from his Veterans Watchmaker Initiative (VWI) school in Odessa, which graduated its first class of four wounded and disabled veterans on April 12.

But the clock has started ticking on Cannan’s efforts to raise about $4.5 million in public and private donations to fund his dream of building a specially designed permanent watchmaker school in nearby Middletown that will house, feed and train disabled veterans from across the nation.

Cannan has bootstrapped (“I’m looking for either cheap or free”) the VWI, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that restores his students’ sense of dignity and purpose through a six-week watch repair class, followed by an intensive 14-month program in a former ambulance station that he has been painstakingly renovating and adding accommodations for his disabled students through cash and in-kind donations (“except for three weeks when I had a quadruple bypass,” he says).

VWI odessa school

VWI’s watchmaker school in Odessa for disabled veterans

Cannan hopes to complete the specialized construction of two classrooms by the end of July and hopes to move forward with the new 28,000-square-foot Middletown school that he has personally designed by the end of summer.  The land for the building and adjacent dormitories for students was donated by Jerry and Richard “Dickey” Money, who own the Money Farm in Middletown. The Odessa property will then be converted to a “sheltered workshop” that will be used as a service center for up to 20 disabled veterans.

Students attend the school, located in the Colonial seat of watchmaking in Delaware, for free.  VWI is staffed totally by volunteers; in fact, instructor Rick Aubin and his wife moved from upstate New York to Smyrna because they believed in Cannan’s vision.

Cannan, who’s worked on this project for nine years, has a waiting list of 400 students and expects to start the next class in July with nine students.

How the Program Works

The curriculum has three phases.  After Cannan confirms eligibility and conducts dexterity tests, they enter the Quartz Technician class, which requires students to service 50 different quartz watches in six weeks before being certified to get a job at a jewelry counter starting in the $40,000 range.

Students can then be selected for a more in-depth program that includes 2,245 hours of classroom and on-the-job training over 14 months where students learn jewelry repair in the first three weeks followed by a watch-repair program.

“There are tens of thousands of open positions for watchmakers around the world, which surprises people because so many of them have given up their watches in favor of mobile phones,” Cannan says.  “And these students are learning very precise instrumentation skills that can be used in other industries.”

In fact, 2018 sales figures tracked by NBD Group indicate that growth in the watch market has been driven by higher average selling process, including 17 percent growth for price points between $10,000 and $25,000 and 20 percent growth for watches above $25,000.

Three of the recent graduates will be staying in Delaware to help Cannan with expansion plans, but the other, Jason Adams, has accepted a job with a luxury retailer that will be sending him for additional training in Switzerland before bringing him back to New York at a salary of about $100,000 per year.

“When they told me that I was unfit for duty (after being injured), I felt like I was broken,” Adams told Bulova for a fundraising video.  “The Veterans Watchmaker Initiative brought back a light in me. There are so many vets out there who don’t have this career path. It gives you drive and motivation-a whole feeling again.”

Industry and Community Support

In the past year, VWI has raised more than $1 million in cash and in-kind donations, including $60,000 from the Welfare Foundation, $100,000 from Crystal Trust, $40,000 from Chichester DuPont Foundation, and $30,000 from M&T Bank.  He’s also received $130,000 worth of rare watch equipment from The Swatch Group; $90,000 in laboratory equipment and cabinets from George Washington University; and he’s in New Mexico on Memorial Day, preparing to drive a truck back to Delaware filled with equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars from a major jewelry supplier.  Another donor has contributed a laser welder and sent people to teach them how to use it, and New Castle County donated the condemned Odessa property for $1 per year in rent.

“The Swatch donation made us a world-class school,” says Cannan, a former Baltimore Police Department detective who retired after an injury that put him temporarily in a wheelchair and then built a second career as a watchmaker.  He understands the challenges his students face and is driven by statistics that show that 83 percent of disabled veterans are unemployed.  “It does my heart good to see the support we’ve gotten that is helping these kids feel good about themselves again.”

VMI’s Roots at Bulova

VWI is patterned after the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking, which was founded in 1946 in Brooklyn and provided 2,000 disabled veterans with training and rehabilitation over 47 years before they closed it in 1993.  But their commitment to the concept ““ and to veterans — remains.

Bulova has launched a Go Fund Me page to support the organization’s fundraising efforts and has pledged to match all funds (up to $10,000) raised between now and June 28.

“Very few believed that one man could replicate what a renowned international business began after World War II, eventually training several generations of disabled veterans,” says Dave Skocik, a VWI board member and president of Dover-based PR Delaware LLC.  “After several disappointments, Sam’s never-quit, “don’t-take-no for an answer” approach resulted in the creation of a “˜beachhead’ in a county-owned building scheduled to be torn down for another project. Jewelers, businesses and watchmakers from multiple states are supporting this one-of-a-kind effort by contributing materials and equipment.”

For more information, contact Sam Cannan at scannan@veteranswatchmakerinitiative.org or give him a call at 302-378-7088.

— By Peter Osborne, DBT Editor


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