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Guitars for Vets: Healing through music

Halifax-based program seeks guitars for veterans suffering from PTSD

4 min read
caption Calvert Lewis spends his free time collecting and fixing guitars to donate to Guitars for Vets
Stacey Seward
caption Calvert Lewis collects and fixes old guitars to donate to Guitars for Vets
Stacey Seward

Is there an old guitar collecting dust somewhere in your house? Jim Lowther believes that it could save a life.

Lowther is the driving force behind Guitars for Vets, which he launched in 2011. He is the president and founder of VETS Canada, a non-profit corporation that provides assistance and support to homeless and in-crisis veterans.

Through his work with VETS Canada, Lowther noticed that many of the veterans he was helping were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Lowther, a veteran himself, found that playing guitar helped him deal with his own PTSD. He wanted others to benefit by that too.

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“When you’re playing, you’re thinking about the chord, you’re thinking about the strumming, you’re thinking about the song. Your brain has to do so many jobs, it breaks the cycle of despair. And before you know it, you kind of drift off,” says Lowther.

Guitars for Vets operates solely on donations. Anyone who wishes to donate a guitar can drop one off at any Long & McQuade music store nationwide. New and used guitars are accepted, cleaned up and given to a veteran, in addition to 10 lessons from a volunteer teacher. To date, more than 700 guitars have made their way into the hands of veterans.

‘The guitar saved their lives’

Lowther says the response has been “unbelievable.” He says that he’s received letters from veterans across the country who credit the program with changing their lives and saving their families.

“We’re getting messages from veterans who are literally saying that the guitar saved their lives. It’s that dramatic,” he says.

“I mean, I can understand because it helped me too. It helped me to the point where I was able to get out and volunteer in the community, and that’s when I found the first homeless vet. And that’s when VETS Canada started.”

Volunteer on a mission

Calvert Lewis, a radio show host in Halifax, heard about the program last fall and immediately decided to get involved.

Lewis had spent a few months learning to rebuild old guitars when he attended a jam-session event at a fundraiser for Guitars for Vets. After seeing the impact that the program had on the veterans, he decided to turn his hobby into a full-time project. Since October, he has collected, refurbished and donated 17 guitars.

“This is the biggest thing in my life that I’ve ever been involved with. It’s the most important thing, except bringing up my two kids, of course, but it’s just so gratifying,” says Lewis, who witnessed the devastating effects of PTSD in an uncle who fought in the Second World War.

Lewis puts out calls for donations on his Facebook page, and the guitars keep coming in. The condition he gets them in varies, but it isn’t unusual for him to spend upwards of 25 hours tediously restoring an instrument.

He says that it’s worth every minute to know that he might make a difference in the life of someone who is suffering.

“I’ll get up and say, ‘OK, I’ve got a guitar in there. Get that done. Get it to somebody. Get them playing.’ For me, it’s a joy to do it, and knowing that it’s going to save somebody’s life, there’s nothing better,” says Lewis.

If you have a guitar that you would like to donate to Guitars for Vets, drop it off at any Long & McQuade store. If it’s a “fixer-upper” or you think it might need some care first, contact Calvert Lewis through his radio show’s Facebook page, Cal’s Closet.

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