“I can’t cure cancer. But what we can do is put smiles on folks’ faces.”
That, in two sentences, is what Cowboys Who Care is all about. It’s how they do it, however, that is truly unique and special.
The thing is, those smiles don’t crease the faces of just anybody. They are reserved for the most innocent of cancer’s victims — kids. Just as importantly, however, those smiles are also reserved for the parents, doctors, nurses and other caregivers who help those kids fight a disease that steals their childhood.
How do those smiles come about? With the gift of a cowboy hat.
Meet the 2019 winner of the BEEF Trailblazer Award, William Lee Martin, and his brainchild, the Cowboys Who Care Foundation. The BEEF Trailblazer Award is sponsored by John Deere.
How it began
God answers prayers. Sometimes by not answering them. Sometimes by answering them in ways we don’t expect.
William Lee Martin knows that. And because God answered — or in his case, didn’t answer — his prayer, Cowboys Who Care was formed.
Martin, based in Rhome, Texas, is a comedian by trade. His work making people smile takes him all over the world, often as a performer on cruise ships. While Cowboys Who Care was revealed to him in a cramped room aboard a cruise ship, it began in his home state.
For many years, Martin performed as Cowboy Bill, and his hat became his trademark. Back in 2010, he was contacted by a couple from Celine, Texas, who were fans. They asked if he would lend his name to a fund-raising golf tournament for their daughter, Ashley, who had a rare form of cancer.
“I was happy to do that,” he recalls. “Then I got to know Ashley and her mom and dad. Her cancer went into remission, then came back with a vengeance, and she lost her battle with cancer in June 2011.”
Martin and his wife, Michele, attended a prayer vigil the night before Ashley was removed from life support. “On the way home, I lost it,” he says. “We’ve got five healthy kids, and I saw what the Millers went through, and I just couldn’t imagine …”
Then came the soul-searching. “I was doing the ‘Tough Enough to Wear Pink’ with Wrangler [a program for breast cancer awareness through rodeos and Western events]. But I didn’t think I was doing anything to help.”
As he was pondering all this, he got a job aboard a cruise ship. They put him in a crew cabin — 6 feet by 9 feet, with two bunk beds and just enough room to do an about-face.
“I was livid,” he says, “and that’s an important part of the story.”
He was so angry that he poured out his emotions to God. And as he was saying out loud in a prayer, “God, why have you got me living in this kind of deal?” he realized his prayer was very much all about him.
Yet Ashley’s death was still on his mind and in his heart. The next day, he was Googling “kids with cancer.” “And I had all these bright, beautiful faces, beautiful smiles, bald heads,” he says. He looked up, and above him in the mirror was his hatbox, with his hat on top.
“That was the ‘aha moment.’ These kids need cowboy hats.”
And with God’s answered and unanswered prayer, Cowboys Who Care began.
“That was as simple as we started,” he says. “I came home and told my wife, ‘I think what we should do is provide cowboy hats to boys and girls with cancer and other life-threatening diseases.’ So we put up the money to start a 501(c)(3) [charity that the IRS exempts from taxes].”
Then came a big hurdle — where to find the hats. Deciding to start at the top, Martin sent a letter to Hat Co., parent company of Resistol, Stetson and Charlie 1 Horse. “And a day later — a day later — I get an email from the president himself who says, ‘Hey, come over to my office when you can.’”
The next day, Martin was in Hat Co.’s Garland, Texas, offices. Hat Co.’s president at the time told Martin that his stepson had been in and out of cancer treatment since he was 3 years old. “I’ve been selling hats for 30 years,” Martin recalls the president saying. “Nobody’s ever approached me on a program like this — and the warehouse is yours.”
At that point, Martin didn’t even know what his next step should be. He built a website, and within a week got his first request from a children’s cancer camp in Illinois. They requested 300 hats. “I went back to his office and said, ‘Well, I got a request.’ And I told him it was 300 hats. He didn’t bat an eye, and we filled the order.”
Martin, Michele and their daughter Audie loaded a U-Haul trailer and pointed the pickup north. Cowboys Who Care was off and running.
Resistol has been providing brand-new cowboy hats ever since.
“That was the summer of 2011,” Martin says. “Since then, we’ve delivered all over the country. We’ve given away a little over 9,000 brand-new cowboy hats. We’ve delivered to hospitals, from an Orthodox Jewish hospital in the Bronx, all the way to Las Vegas and the NFR [National Finals Rodeo].”
How it works
Most of the hats are delivered in person by volunteers who visit children’s hospitals. Because of Martin’s connection with professional rodeo, many of those volunteers are rodeo contestants and rodeo royalty.
“When we get to the hospital, we do room-to-room visits. We go in and spend time. We try not to hurry through the visit,” Martin says. “But we also understand that a lot of these kids are not in the best shape. But boy, it just puts a smile on their face. And what we didn’t expect was [getting] as big a smile that Mom and Dad get.”
While every visit, every child, every smile are memorable, there are a few that make a lasting impression. One that Martin recalls happened several years ago during the NFR.
“Obviously, it’s Christmastime at the NFR,” he says. “And we walked in, and Mom started crying.” Her son had been a cowboy for Halloween and had a plastic hat as part of the costume. He asked for a real cowboy hat for Christmas.
Then his leukemia flared back up, and the treatments came back. His mom didn’t have any idea where she was going to get a hat, or how she was even going to afford one. Then the Martins, like angels answering a prayer, walked into the room.
“It’s really is a small, small thing in their life, but they really seem to enjoy it,” Martin says. “I know for [the parents], you can see the look in their face, even if it’s for 15 minutes while we’re there and the hat’s there. Their kid’s not sick, the kid is usually smiling. And they got that big ol’ Texas-wide grin on their face. I couldn’t imagine what the parents are going through, but I’ve seen the admiration and the appreciation from them as well.”
And who knows? Maybe that’s just what the kid needed to get through the day. “Sometimes just getting through the day is the only thing that you need to do and should do. And sometimes it’s the hardest thing to do,” Martin says.
“So maybe, by coming in and giving that smile for the day, he got up to that day and then the next day. But maybe we set in motion the ability to get through those days. And then once you get through the days, you can get through the weeks, and then the months.”
Just because a child has been diagnosed with cancer, it doesn’t mean that’s the end, Martin says. “We have several success stories, kids sending us pictures two years later, three years later in remission. So that’s been another cool thing, is watching the kids who have gone in and fought it and beat it.”
How you can help
There are several ways people can help the program. However, donating hat isn’t one of them.
“A lot of times, people want to give Grandpa’s hat. The problem with that is, there’s a lot of immune system compromises when kids are going through something like this. So, unfortunately, we can’t take used hats,” Martin says. All the hats are new and donated by Resistol.
But Cowboys Who Care recently initiated a Request a Hat program. “One of the frustrating things is that we can’t be at all hospitals at all times,” Martin says. “Then one day I just took it to prayer, and we came up with the idea.”
If you know a child battling cancer or other life-threatening illness, visit cowboyswhocare.org, click on the “Request a Hat” button and fill out the form to describe the situation.
“And then we’ll send them a free hat — no shipping, no handling, no strings attached. We just simply send out a hat. Now we have these little designer socks that also go out with them as well. So we literally can put to head to toe something from Cowboys Who Care,” Martin says.
Or, you can become an ambassador and make a hospital visit. You can learn more about how that program works at cowboyswhocare.org.
“We do have two things on our social media that we do every week. One is called Prayer Posse Tuesday. So, families can send in what they’re going through with a kid, and we’ll put it out on social media, and we’ll get prayer warriors going on the thing,” Martin says.
“And then we also have Thankful Thursdays, because we want folks to realize that there are so many things, success stories of beating the cancer, and moving up and moving on. So we want to make sure most of those are recognized each week.”
And then, of course, there’s always a need for money. While Cowboys Who Care is a volunteer outfit, the group does have two paid staff members. And while the hats are donated, there’s the cost of keeping the lights on and shipping the hats.
“What we also love about the program is that when I was growing up, a cowboy hat meant honor, bravery and integrity. And, well, we think what we’re doing with Cowboys Who Care is bringing that back to a cowboy hat,” Martin says.