DCF Capital Grant Provides More Accessibility to the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative
Wheelchair-Accessible Addition to Biddle House Increases Housing for Prospective Watchmakers
A $5,000 grant from the Delaware Community Foundation (DCF) is enabling a Delaware nonprofit to offer training to wheelchair users who want to become watchmakers, an industry facing a significant shortage of certified workers.
The Veterans Watchmaker Initiative (VWI), based in Odessa, received the grant in January 2023 and is using the funds to make a house used by watchmaking students accessible to wheelchair users.
VWI is one of 22 organizations awarded $254,823 from the DCF’s Capital Grants program. The program assists with the acquisition, final-stage design, construction, repair, renovation, rehabilitation, or other capital improvements of facilities, so nonprofits in all three counties can operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. Capital Grants support projects that will have a lasting, positive impact on the population or community served by the grantee organization.
Sam Cannan started the VWI program 13 years ago to provide veterans the opportunity to learn an in-demand skill with the goal of solving the watchmaking shortage. In its relatively short life, the program has produced watchmakers who have gone on to work for the best jewelry makers around the country and the world.
“The watchmaking field is ideal for veterans who use wheelchairs,” Cannan said. “There has also been research that shows this line of work is therapeutic for those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because of the required concentration and peacefulness.”
The watchmaking industry has been searching for a solution to its growing number of vacancies. Once thought to be short of about 1,600 workers, the industry now has potentially 16,000 openings, according to Cannan. With more watchmakers retiring than coming in, companies are scrambling to find certified watchmakers anywhere they can find them.
“The original idea for this program started back in 1944 by the Bulova Company. They trained over 2,000 veterans through the Vietnam War before the program was shut down,” Cannan said. “Around 13 years ago, I began my version of a veterans watchmaking program, bought the building in Odessa for a dollar, renovated it and the rest is history.”
VWI plans to finish the construction of the Biddle House, one of two on-site residences for the students, including transforming the back porch into a wheelchair-accessible living space. Construction of a wheelchair-accessible entrance, bathroom and living space will conclude two years of upgrades inside the Biddle House. The second residence is already complete and currently houses seven VWI students. Once the Biddle House is completed, it will house up to seven VWI students as well.
Prospective watchmakers come from all over the country to take VWI’s six-week quartz watch technician course and/or its 16-month watchmaker certification course. The current class of VWI students is set to graduate in August. Companies like Rolex, Tiffany and TAG Heuer have already visited Odessa to talk with the students about potential employment upon graduation. The next class of prospective watchmakers is set to enroll in September, with the Biddle House providing more accessibility than ever before.
“This new class will be the first one where the Veterans Watchmaking Initiative is fully wheelchair-accessible,” Cannan said. “We will be able to take in folks who are wheelchair-bound and have them live comfortably and work on their new craft.”