Wisconsin man, once imprisoned, now brightens lives of cancer patients

Taught himself to crochet and knits hats

By Bethany Hines, CNN
Kurt Stapleton via CNN

Kurt Stapleton with one of his creations. "I'm just a guy making hats," he says.

(CNN) - With loving hands and a dainty hook, a craftsman is making the world a little warmer by crocheting colorful caps -- almost as colorful as the tattoos on his muscular forearms.

Kurt Stapleton learned to crochet in prison a decade ago. Now he's making hats for cancer patients who've lost their hair.

"About a year ago, I initially posted something about making chemo hats and friends shared it," the 42 year-old told CNN. He thought his post might raise a little local interest in the knit caps. "I got a lot more than I anticipated."

Now the Madison, Wisconsin, resident ships his caps to cancer patients all around the world, free of charge.

He has made about 50 hats in the last month and has another 40 or so on order. People as far away as Thailand, South Africa and the Philippines are wearing his hats.

Stapleton also receives donations from across the globe to help fund his project.

"Because of donations, I'm now able to put lotion, candy and what they really need when they are going through chemo."

He knits caps to honor his late father

Stapleton knows all too well what chemo patients need. In 2006, he lost his father to bladder cancer.

"I wasn't able to do anything to help him. It happened so fast," he said.

The caps he makes now are his way of honoring his father. "I'm trying to put some good into the world."

The death of his father was part of a tough period in Stapleton's life. He had other struggles. In May of 2009, he was arrested and charged with two counts of armed robbery.

"I was addicted to Percocet and Vicodin. I went to a pharmacy and told them to give me the pills," he said. "That was rock bottom."

During his three years behind bars, Stapleton learned crocheting. It was comforting for him, so he spent a lot of time learning how to do it.

"They had a donation program for inmates to make things for children in need," he said. "I started that way. I taught myself."

His caps mean a lot to those who get them

Stapleton, who manages a warehouse, stands well over six feet tall and weighs 230 pounds. But he's all heart.

"I pick up my son from daycare after work," he said. "I do chores around the house and feed the animals."

His menagerie includes a dog, two gerbils, three cats, four tortoises, a fish and a reptile called a bearded dragon.

"In between time, I crochet," he said.

Wendy Oren of Edgerton, Wisconsin, is fighting ovarian cancer. She wears one of Stapleton's caps like a suit of armor.

"You can't put it into words -- what someone thinks is the littlest thing. And for him to not even know me, to make sure I got a hat, it was just a wonderful feeling," she told CNN. "I felt supported and loved."

But Stapleton is quick to deflect praise for his efforts.

"I'm just a guy making hats," he said. "The people who are battling cancer are the heroes."

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