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Ask CN Railroader in the Community Shawn McRae why he handcrafts wooden pens that are sent to American servicemen and women overseas, and his answer is both patriotic and personal.

“I kind of got swept up in the Freedom Pens Project,” explains Shawn, a Baton Rouge, LA-based conductor who joined CN in 2003.

Shawn’s 85-year-old father-in-law, Joe Kelly, was an experienced woodworker and the Southern Regional Coordinator for The Freedom Pens Project, which was founded in 2004 by a group of volunteer woodturners in Virginia. Across the U.S. woodworkers craft pens that are then shipped to military personnel as a symbol of support.

“My father-in-law was a career military man and told me, ‘When you're overseas, anything from back home – even if it’s from a stranger – is a cherished item,” says Shawn.’ One ink pen makes a big difference to somebody, and he made about 13,000 pens – about 20 or 30 a day.”

Joe taught Shawn everything, from cutting the wood down, drilling it out, turning it and putting the final pens together. When Joe passed away in 2017, Shawn inherited his woodshop, and he’s continuing Joe’s legacy by making 10 Freedom Pens a week. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he also gave woodworking workshops to Boy Scouts and high school students.