Chapter 01: United Over Coffee
Michael Hyacinthe, an 8-year United States Navy Veteran served as a U.S. Navy Seabee combat warfare specialist from 1997-2005. While active, he traveled throughout the world to bases and on missions in Iceland, Guam, Europe and the Middle East.
Originally born in Haiti, Michael and his family moved when he was five years old to the Bronx, NY. Following his service and time spent living in New York City, Michael relocated to Grand Rapids, MI in 2008, where he currently lives with his wife and four kids.
In June 2010, Michael and his wife’s extended family learned the worst news any service member’s family could hear. Their son, brother, cousin, and friend, U.S. Marine Corporal Daane DeBoer, was killed-in-action from an IED explosion in Afghanistan.
While the family was grieving their loss, a buzz of energy was simultaneously filling the Grand Rapids area. ArtPrize, the world’s largest open art competition, was just beginning to flood the streets and buildings of downtown Grand Rapids, transforming the entire city into a free public art gallery.
Witnessing over 400,000 people come together throughout the city for an event like ArtPrize left an impression on Michael, inclining him to believe that art harnesses the power to bring a diverse group of people together.
A few months later while working towards earning his degree from Grand Valley State University, he learned of GVSU alum, Tyler Way, an artist and designer who had recently graduated with a degree in Advertising & Public Relations and minor in Entrepreneurship.
Years earlier while in his freshman dorm room in 2006, Tyler discovered the artistic process of customizing sneakers.
Throughout his college education, Tyler built a of business custom-designing sneakers for elite clients including NBA players Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, Chris Paul, and LeBron James. In addition to custom-painted shoes, Tyler also created large-scale pointillism artwork for Nike founder, Phil Knight, former NBA Dunk Contest winner, Jason Richardson, professional sport executives like Lynn Merritt and William “Worldwide” Wes, and singer & songwriter, Mike Posner. Beyond his artistic ambitions, Tyler freelanced as a graphic designer and created a small line of apparel products before graduating in 2009.
Michael sent Tyler an email, and the two met-up for coffee at their local neighborhood coffee shop.
During their conversation, they quickly realized the disconnect between Michael’s world as a Veteran and Tyler’s world as an artist and designer.
Although Tyler didn’t come from an extensive military background (his grandfather served in the Army during the Korean War), he was personally motivated to ‘do something’ because two of his childhood friends were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan while he was able to freely follow his passions and career.
Michael, who still had a twin brother actively serving as a medic in the Army, wanted to continue his service by helping other Veterans while also honoring his fallen cousin-in-law, Daane DeBoer.
They both believed that the worlds of Veterans, creatives, and civilians could come together not merely to co-exist, but to support and better understand each other — they just didn’t know quite how. At least not yet…
Shortly after their first meeting over coffee, Michael was attending a regional Veterans event where he met a local wounded Marine, which changed everything…
CHAPTER 02: THE MARINE
Michael met a local U.S. Marine who was paralyzed from the neck-down and lost his ability to speak due to injuries suffered in Iraq. Once he learned of the Marine’s love of t-shirts from his full-time nurse, Michael called Tyler and asked if he’d be interested in helping create a t-shirt design with the Marine.
Over a couple hours time, Michael and Tyler listened and took notes as the Marine and his caretaker told old stories, shared about his favorite hobbies, interests, music and movies, and passed around pictures of him before, during, and after his deployment and life-changing injury.
Much of this time, the nurse was talking and answering questions. But to get the full story to help tell, Tyler had some questions for the Marine to answer. Since he could only nod his head “Yes” or “No,” the questions and answers were limited. After gaining a strong understanding of his overall story and personal style, Way asked one final question that required more than a nod or a head shake.
“What’s your definition of a hero?” Tyler asked.
Without hesitation, the Marine looked over to his nurse and through a special alphanumeric communication code, began spelling out his answer, letter by letter.
The Marine responded with head nods and shakes as his caretaker pointed to each row of letters on a white board by his side:
Everyone paused for a moment and let his response sink in…
Although his life was forever changed from his service, he didn’t consider himself a hero. Instead, his message was to shine a light on whom he considered the real American heroes — those who made the ultimate sacrifice. To help tell this story, the other elements he wanted included in his design were a fallen soldier memorial and an American flag.
Tyler had more than enough information and inspiration to get started.
Throughout the next week, Tyler researched military references, design inspirations, and even made a visit to the Marines home to better understand him and his lifestyle directly and to share some initial sketches and concepts.
With the feedback and further intel gathered after the home visit, the group regathered for the unveiling of the Marine’s final design.
His smile lit up the room. Mission Accomplished.
His shirt was printed in collaboration with Ranger Up with its proceeds helped him finish building his handicap-accessible smart home.
That process and its end result was so powerful that both Michael and Tyler knew they had to continue partnering more Veterans with more designers. But how?
CHAPTER 03: THE HERO[SERIES]
The HERO[series] was established, a powerful collaborative design process that pairs a Veteran with a designer for the shared mission to tell their story through the mediums of art, design, and fashion.
For the past five years, [HAS HEART] has partnered Veterans with artists on an annual basis, each year unveiling a collection of new designs, American-made products, and Veterans’ stories as an annual ArtPrize exhibit in Grand Rapids, MI.
Each year, [HAS HEART] would slightly change the ‘recipe’ of the project until they got it ‘just right.’
Starting with the 2012 HERO[series], [HAS HEART] partnered some of the top-selling Threadless artists from across the country with a handful of the most awe-inspiring Veterans, flying the majority of them into Grand Rapids for a week of design projects, field trips, and local experiences.
The following year, the 2013 HERO[series] project featured regional artists with Veterans flown-in from across the country.
In 2014, all artists were local and just a couple Veterans were flown-in.
Then, it clicked.
Tyler was a local chapter member of the professional design organization, AIGA. After successfully pitching the concept to board members from his West Michigan chapter, the 2015 HERO[series] project partnered five local Veterans (four of whom were Vietnam-era Veterans) with five designer members from his AIGA West Michigan chapter.
For [HAS HEART], this was the first step towards building a significant partnership with the nation’s oldest and largest professional design organization that had chapters already established in 70+ cities across the nation.
The next step towards establishing a larger AIGA partnership was implemented in the 2016 HERO[series] in which the project would travel to a new city for the first time — its first test of mobility.
The project was so well received, including in the local media, that [HAS HEART] worked with Bedrock Detroit to open a temporary pop-up shop in the heart of downtown Detroit that was open throughout the Christmas shopping season.
Throughout these five years of hosting annual projects, the HERO[series] process was refined again and again with the long-term vision always in mind: to impact more Veterans, engage more creatives, and reach more civilians.
The process was refined to partner one Veteran with one artist…
…For two days…
…With the shared mission to help tell their story…
…Through the mediums of art, design, and fashion…
…Resulting from a powerful collaborative design process…
…That is documented…
…Produced into American-made consumer goods…
…And sold and exhibited with proceeds from their design going back to benefit each Veteran and their family.
Now that the process was refined and ready, the question was: how does a small, self-funded, non-profit organization reach more people?
CHAPTER 04: 50 STATES
After five years of annual HERO[series] design projects, [HAS HEART] has been able to refine the Veteran and artist collaboration process into a streamlined, efficient two-day design process — making it easily repeatable over and over again in order to impact more Veterans, engage more creatives, and reach more civilians.
The question: How does a small, volunteer, self-funded non-profit organization reach more Americans?
Our answer: “Why don’t we just take it to them ourselves?”
So we are.
For the next 18+ months, [HAS HEART] Co-Founder/Creative Director, Tyler Way and our Communications Director (and his wife) Kendra Clapp (and their cat Noel) will be living and working on the road, traveling from state-to-state to partner one Veteran with one artist in all fifty states with the mission to share each Veteran’s story through the mediums of art, design, and fashion.
The creative processes and nationwide travels will be documented and shared through online updates and collaborative product releases. Each state project will yield:
Once the 18-month journey is complete, the 50 designs and their messages will be compiled and published into a coffee table book, curated into a traveling art museum exhibit, and produced into a collection of American-made consumer products whose proceeds will benefit the Veterans who co-designed them.
But we can’t do this alone.
To accomplish a project this ambitious, we believe in the mantra, “Many hands make light work.” As a small organization, we certainly cannot plan, execute, finance, and produce all of these meaningful projects and content on our own.
So we will be continually partnering with other organizations, foundations, local businesses, corporations, and national brands who share our passion in supporting Veterans through a creative outlet such as this.
We’ve also enabled everyday citizens to support this mission. You can donate to the project, including being able dedicate your support in someone’s name and/or contributing to your desired state project fund.
You can also create a fundraising page of your own that will tie into our overall “50 States: Veterans + Artists United” campaign. This option is a great way for social groups, organizations, and companies to pool your support together as one.