Reconnecting the Civilian and Veteran Worlds: [HAS HEART]'s story

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Earlier this month we caught up with the guys behind [HAS HEART], a Michigan-based non-profit that bridges the growing divide between the veteran and civilian world through art, design and storytelling. 

We love connecting with members of the MuskOx Herd and hearing what they are up to, so we met up with Co-Founders Michael and Tyler at the Veterans Memorial Park building in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Co-Founders, Michael Hyacinthe, an 8-year US Navy Veteran and Tyler Way, artist/designer met over a cup of coffee in 2010. They connected over the growing disconnect between civilian and veteran populations and realized the creative collaboration to re-fuse the city of Grand Rapids with the veteran world. Soon after their coffee meeting, Michael met a local quadriplegic Marine who collected t-shirts but had lost the ability to speak due to his injuries in Iraq. Tyler worked with the Marine to co-create a design that shared his message. This is what kicked off [HAS HEART]’s HERO[series].

View the first HERO[series] project here

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Since their first design project in 2010, Michael and Tyler have continued to pair veterans and designers for two-day design sessions where the designer helps translate the veteran’s story through design, graphics and messages. These designs are then made into apparel, boots and other products where 25% of proceeds from a design’s sales will benefit the veteran.

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In 2017 the organization started 50 States: Veterans + Artists United where Tyler and his wife Kendra travel across the country to partner one veteran with one artist in all fifty states. The goal in each state is to tell the veteran’s story through art, design, and fashion. All this happens while Tyler and Kendra drive cross country living out of their Airstream. The cat Noel is along for the adventure too. 

In November of 2019 the 50 STATES project visited 39 States and impacted the lives of 172 Americans.

Learn more about the ongoing project here

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Looking at 2020 and beyond, [HAS HEART] plans to complete their 50 STATES project and will be transforming the historic Grand Rapids Veterans Memorial Park building into a coffee shop where veterans and civilians connect and meet over coffee. 

Lets now jump into some Q & A with [HAS HEART] Co-Founder, Tyler Way 

MuskOx: What are some areas of your background that has influenced [HAS HEART]?
Tyler: My background in pointillism art has helped in the storytelling process with a close attention to the details that can tell a story embedded within a piece of art or graphic design. My product design experience has also helped us manufacture meaningful products and work with some great brands on a variety of collaborative projects, from boots to coffee mugs and everything else in between.

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MuskOx: Can you share a story that has resonated with you from the HERO[series]?
Tyler: Honestly, picking a story for me is like a parent picking a favorite child. Each one has expanded my respect, appreciation, and understanding of veterans and what they've been through, have sacrificed for, and can continue to do in improving our communities and country.

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MuskOx: What's next for the HERO[series]?
Tyler: We're going to continue partnering veterans with designers to share their stories through art, design, and fashion. It's just a matter of when, where, and with whom that will be with that we're looking forward to most.

MuskOx: 50 STATES seems unimaginable, what inspired this adventure?
Tyler: After six years of partnering veterans with designers in Michigan, we felt that we needed to bring this powerful collaborative process to others in order to impact more veterans, engage more creatives, and reach more civilians. This was also a decision to dedicate ourselves to this mission completely.

My wife Kendra and I quit our careers, sold everything including our condo, furniture, and cars, and really invested ourselves and our lives into [HAS HEART] through this tour. 

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MuskOx: Can you share a story from the 50 STATES journey?
Tyler: We could (and one day will) fill a book with all the stories we've experienced, but one that has come to mean a lot to me was when we were staying overnight in a Cabela's parking lot in North Carolina, which we often did when traveling between states. We got a knock on our Airstream door in the morning, which when you're living on the road isn't a welcomed surprise. It was a man who was on his way out of Cabela's and noticed the decals on the trailer; he looked up [HAS HEART] on his phone and wanted to thank us for what we were doing.

He was a retired Army commander that served for 30+ years and said that every day he carries with him the men and women he served with, many of whom he stays in contact with and continues to mentor them through the transition out of the military. He quickly went to his car and brought back two challenge coins that he wanted to give Kendra and I in appreciation for our form of service to his fellow veterans.

Small moments of support have helped fuel our passion for the project and have impacted us immensely on a personal level.

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MuskOx: What's next for [HAS HEART] and what should be on our radar? 
For the past several years we've always envisions building a permanent space where people could feel and experience the impact of [HAS HEART] that previously was only felt during pop-up exhibits open for just a few weeks each fall. Coffee has played a unique role in our story -- it's how Michael and I first met in 2010 that inspired us to build [HAS HEART] together.

Coffee is how every veteran and designer get to know each other to kick off each HERO[series] project. Coffee is a catalyst for conversation and connection, and this historic building on the grounds of the Veterans Memorial Park in Grand Rapids is the perfect space for us to bring veterans and civilians together. Building this coffee shop and finishing the "50 STATES" project are our main missions right now, and we need a lot of support to make it all happen. 

Learn more about [HAS HEART] and their work to bridge the divide between the Veteran and civilian worlds