MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) — If you ask Kurt Stapleton if he ever thought he’d be where he currently is, tucked in his comfy chair, cat curled up beside him, crocheting hats for cancer patients, he would look at you with a sense of disbelief.
“Twelve years ago I was desperate, I was depressed, and I was at one of the lowest points in my life,” Stapleton said. “Sitting here today was not even a thought in my mind with where I was in my drug use, I don’t think I would have been here.”
For Stapleton, reflecting back to the early 2000s can bring to light difficult memories. In 2005, his father was diagnosed with cancer, transforming the strong truck driver and seemingly unbreakable figure he had grown up with.
“There was nothing left of that man,” he said. “For me to see him like that, it was shocking. That wasn’t my dad.”
Stapleton’s father lost his battle with cancer. That loss took a toll on him.
“That was the moment in my life that sort of sent me spiraling downward,” he said. “It was a very slow descent, I was in the middle of a substance use disorder.”
At that point in his life, Stapleton said he was unhappy. He said he left his wife and kids, wanting to make a change. He went on to meet his current wife, Nicki, who inspired him to lead a better life.
“Her work ethic and her drive to be a better person, to provide for herself and be independent and strong, that really spoke to me,” he said.
It was days before their wedding when he lost his job, and that’s when he said, things took a turn for the worse.
“I pretended like everything was fine,” he said. “Two weeks after our wedding was when I finally reached the point of desperation.”
Fueled by an addiction to pain relievers, Stapleton robbed a pharmacy in Milton, which he now calls a cry for help.
He then attempted to rob a pharmacy in Edgerton, which he said didn’t work. He was driving home when he saw the police lights.
“I pulled over immediately and when I looked up again I saw the eight rifles that were pointed at the back of my head,” he said. “That solidified for me – that was the moment that I was never going to be in that position again, because this is where the drugs had led me to. But it was also the moment in my life when I decided I had to change.”
Stapleton was incarcerated from Jan. 6, 2010 until Oct. 12, 2012.
In prison, Stapleton found the change he needed, thanks to a fellow inmate who taught him how to crochet. From prison, he would practice crocheting, creating and donating items for local churches. When he got out, he transformed his newfound passion, into his purpose.
“I’m doing this for a reason, I’m helping somebody,” he said “It made me feel really good, a sense of pride.”
Stapleton is referring to the Battle Cap Project, a project he started in 2018. He custom crochets caps for cancer patients, hoping to bring them comfort during treatment. He has sent his caps all over the world thus far, in care packages that he puts together for free.
The project came about when a friend asked him to knit a cap for Wendy Oren, an Edgerton woman who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
“Total shock to our family, my husband and I especially,” said Oren.
Oren now commutes to Chicago for treatment, receiving painful shots. However, Oren said she holds onto a crocheted cancer ribbon that Stapleton made her to get through the pain.
“Every time I squeeze this I just think, ‘I’m brave, I can do this,’ and that’s what goes through my head,” she said.
During chemotherapy, Oren lost her hair, wearing a red and white custom cap from Stapleton to keep her head warm.
“I was focused on his battle and his journey and how he made it, and it really made me believe I could beat the odds that were against me,” she said.
Crocheting the caps, Stapleton is giving comfort to those battling the disease his father battled too. Thinking of patients wearing his hats while fighting cancer and receiving treatment was the inspiration for the name Battle Cap Project.
In addition to helping those battling cancer, Stapleton is also working to help those battling addiction and substance use disorder.
“That was the main reason why I created the Recovery Arts and Wellness program in Janesville,” he said.
On Saturday mornings, the program brings together people recovering from substance abuse to participate in different arts and crafts stations, and to reflect on central themes or topics. The program takes place at the 12 and 12 Drop In Center in Janesville.
Michelle Holland, Vice President of the 12 and 12 Drop In Center, said she’s seen the way crafts can help those in recovery.
“Sometimes it’s hard to express those deep down feelings, causes, and conditions, and so when you get to work with art, it’s a personal journey,” Holland said. “It’s a personal expression of how you’re feeling. Sometimes it’s not easy to talk about, but it’s a little bit easier to express it through other forms and other mediums.”
The crafts are meant to spark discussion and reflection, like “worry doll” crafts or painting plastic face masks.
“What we’re doing with the masks is a lot of times when you’re coping, you have a different mask. You have a mask for work, you have a mask for your family, you have a different mask,” she said. Holland described the masks as a way to think about coping skills, “how to incorporate those coping skills, positive coping skills, instead of negative ones to be able to show who you really are.”
“Having a hobby for somebody in recovery, having a creative outlet, it really gives them a way to express themselves,” said Stapleton.
Between crafting on Saturday mornings, and crocheting at night, Stapleton’s life looks drastically different than it did about a decade ago. In his comfy chair surrounded by photos of his family, drug free, and committed to the Battle Cap Project and Recovery Arts and Wellness, Stapleton works to make a difference, one cap at a time.
“No matter where you are in life you can always get yourself out of that hole, you can always do something good, you can be that example, and be a better person.”