Planning and executing a fifty-state tour doesn’t just happen overnight. This concept was brewing for almost two years and required a handful of life changes to prepare for this dramatic lifestyle change. And even then, it came together last minute with a few miracles and a handful of incredible people making it possible along the way.

Kendra and I have always been asked since the time we first shared this project concept, “How? Why? When? And for how long?” Our families have been especially curious and concerned, and rightfully so. 

50 States: Veterans + Artists United

Our first step was making sure it made sense for the organization. As mentioned in “Our Story – Part IV: 50 States” post, the single biggest mission behind the project would be to impact more Veterans, more creatives, and more civilians. We realized the best way to reach more people was not to rely on a social media algorithm, ad budget, or traditional media. If we wanted it to reach more people, we would have to take it across the country to them ourselves.

After we started to put the concept down on paper, it clicked and made perfect sense. We had years of experience facilitating HERO[series] projects, there are Veterans located across the country in every city imaginable, there’s an infrastructure of designers already established through AIGA, Kendra and I were in positions in our life where we were flexible and eliminated any personal barriers holding us back, and there was even a resurging trend of “road trips” within the social media/blog webisphere.

We knew this would overly ambitious since we had no significant history of funding. The organization was essentially self-funded and any revenue gained from product sales went back to the Veterans who designed them and to pay for the next round of HERO[series] projects and products. We operated the organization on nights and weekends from our homes and donated spaces, enabling us to be debt free and with very minimal expenses. If the organization was to continue and expand its impact, we understood it would take an even greater personal commitment from us to do it. After nearly six years, we knew it was time to jump all-in, sink or swim. We believed that if we just got started, the support we needed would come when we needed it to come.

In June 2016, I put my condo on the market. Surprisingly, it sold within a week, much sooner than I expected! For the next six months, I rented a room from a friend until I moved-in with Kendra and her parents, who were the best roommates I’ve ever had!

Our next step was to practice “life on the road.” Kendra and I planned a semi-cross country trip. We flew to Montana for my 30th birthday in July 2016, spent a couple days in Glacier National Park (our minds were blown by its beauty!), and then rented a car to drive westward to Portland, Oregon.

The first pitch we made was to Nike. I had been commissioned years earlier to do some personal art projects for various professional athletes and executives, so we thought, “Why not try?” Swing for the fences. Go big or go home. Aim for the stars. Dream impossible.

There was genuine interest and personal support from those we met with there in Beaverton, but even with a couple supporters on the inside pushing for us, it’s hard and slow to move a big ship such as Nike. There was interest, but no immediate results.

Our next pitch was up the coast to Seattle, Washington. I remember watching Howard Schultz’s interview years before announcing Starbucks’ commitment to hire 10,000 Veterans with tears in my eyes knowing that someday, somehow, [HAS HEART] would work with Starbucks. In addition to Starbucks’ commitment to Veterans, there was also Howard and Sheri’s personal Schultz Family Foundation. We met with SFF and again received supportive yet “realistic” feedback about how ambitious this project was, but this time there was some immediate good news that they could help us start small with a couple pilot projects to test it out.

With a couple months of planning and a small grant from the Schultz Family Foundation, in January 2017, Kendra and I flew back out to Seattle with fellow board member, Brian Cousins, and conducted the first state pilot project with Starbucks designer, Victor Melendez and Seattle-area Veteran, Monique Brown. We also partnered with Touch Worldwide, who hosted, filmed, and helped produce the two-day project that went as smoothly as it possibly could!

[View entire Seattle, Washington project]

Days later, we drove down the coast and conducted our second pilot project. Where, you ask? NIKE! We partnered with AIGA Portland, who happened to include Marisa Green who happened to also work at Nike. She helped us navigate the local waters, secure Nike designer Rich Tu, and a got us access to host it at Blue Ribbon Studio, Nike’s internal creative space for their designers, innovators, and material specialists. We partnered Rich with local Veteran, Judith Burger and had videographer, Nick Brown (Quick Hit Record) document and photographer Amit Zinman capture it.

[View entire Portland, Oregon project]

For the next few months while the designers, videographers, and photographers put the finishing touches on their parts of the pilot projects, we had a million other things to plan, prepare, and propose in order to get the support we needed from potential partners and sponsors. We put together a variety of packets, proposals, and pitches.

One of the first key goals was to secure an apparel partner. We are a small organization – there were just a few of us giving our time, talents, and resources to conduct the annual HERO[series] projects that we were able to do. We knew we needed a partner who had the manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution capabilities to make this possible. And if we could find one that had authentic, American military heritage with the brand appeal necessary to put their stamp on the project, then we would be set! Without any hesitation, we knew the ideal partner would be Alpha Industries. We flew down to Chantilly, Virginia, to meet with the Alpha team in person. Long story short: they immediately understood, envisioned, and supported it!

[Read more about our Alpha Industries collaborative launch]

Next step: How do we find designers, videographers, and photographers in every city to help make each state project happen? That one was easy: AIGA, the professional organization for design. I had been a member of the AIGA West Michigan chapter for years, [HAS HEART] had participated in a variety of their Design For Good and Design Blitz initiatives, and we had already conducted a HERO[series] project with the AIGA West Michigan chapter in 2015 and the AIGA Detroit chapter in 2016. With a couple months worth of emails, proposals, and grant applications, we soon had a partner in AIGA and its 70+ chapters located across the country!

[Learn more about this partnership and our visit to their NYC headquarters]

With these two enormous pieces of the puzzle falling into place, the major remaining ones were to figure out how we were actually going to live and travel from state-to-state.

We first thought an RV would make the most sense. It was drivable and we could live in it. So we researched the heck out of the RV industry, put together more proposals, and eventually approached the biggest and most well-known American RV brand: Winnebago.

An early mock-up of Winnebago x HAS HEART

After some initial positive and exciting conversations, the holidays and “RV show season” hit and we fell into a couple months of silence with them. When we finally heard back, it wasn’t the news we wanted to hear. They wouldn’t be able to let us use an RV, but they said we could buy one at a discounted rate.

With only a few months until we were planning to hit the road, we had to reconsider our options. Kendra and I have both always loved the aesthetic of Airstream trailers, but I really didn’t want to feel like I was living in a car by having to pull a trailer everywhere. But after no luck finding an RV partner and after researching more about Airstream and its history, they began to make more and more sense. After weeks of research, wish-listing, and putting together another proposal, we tried to reach out to Airstream.

Nothing. Crickets.

Then, through a friend, we got connected with Chad from Woodland Travel Center, a local family-owned Airstream dealer. After an email explaining our project concept, Kendra and I went in to meet with him in person. Chad was extremely excited and supportive of the project, and we could genuinely feel it when we met with him. Turned out, Woodland Travel Center was the oldest Airstream dealer in the country and had a great relationship with Airstream. Chad was more than willing to not only introduce us to who we would want to talk with at Airstream, but he even wrote the one of the most heart-felt introductory emails I’ve ever seen. Then…

Still Nothing. Still Crickets.

When we told Chad about this, he seemed flabbergasted and even hurt himself about it, but said he would do whatever he could to help make this happen for us. At this point, we only had a couple months before our departure date. I had told my employer that I was planning on leaving, and, oh yeah, we had a wedding to plan!

[View “Abous Us: Kendra and Tyler” to see more]

After realizing there was no RV or Airstream partnership in sight, Kendra and I decided if we were going to dedicate ourselves to this project and live in a recreational vehicle for the next two years with our cat, Noel, then we would need to be willing to make an investment in it ourselves. We decided we would personally finance a trailer or RV ourselves. After re-researching our options, we concluded that the best option that holds its value the most and had the least amount of chances of things going wrong with it when we were in the middle of nowhere, USA, would be an Airstream trailer, even if it were one of the more expensive that would stretch our newlywed finances.

We proudly shared this news with Chad at Woodland Travel Center and he and his team went above and beyond to help us figure out what we did or didn’t need, educated us on everything about how to operate, tow, and hitch/unhitch the trailer, and generously gave us the best deal they could realistically make to meet our budget.

We have a trailer! We have everything we need, right?!

Not quite!…

Now we needed a truck to pull it with! So we did what we do best: put together a proposal for a truck sponsorship. This should be easy, right? A Veteran-focused nonprofit organization located just a couple hours from the Motor City, home of the American-made truck. On paper, it’s an easy “sell.”

No luck. We had interest and connections, but no results.

Then, with just a couple weeks before we had to hit the road, Kendra posted on Facebook asking if anyone had any suggestions or connections. Someone she knew from her previous fashion-buying role commented. When we saw that, we were ecstatic! Her husband owned a variety of car and truck dealerships in the area and said they would be interested in helping. So we met with Todd Wenzel Automotive, and within a week, they found the perfect two-year lease for a Chevy 2500 truck with a tow package — exactly what we needed! Knowing we were personally stretched with having to purchase the Airstream ourselves, Todd Wenzel Chevy generously donated a $5,000 down-payment for the truck lease, reducing [HAS HEART]’s monthly payment to a manageable amount. 

We’re still hoping other Chevy dealers or Chevrolet corporate would be able to help us cover the rest of the lease — so if anyone is reading this that knows someone at GM that would be interested in helping [HAS HEART] travel the rest of the country to share Veterans’ stories, please let us know! Gracias.

THANK YOU to EVERYONE who made this impossible feat possible. Getting started is the absolute hardest part of any project, mission, or goal. The only thing we can do is to “just start,” and have faith that the required pieces will fall into place. And if they don’t, then we’ll find ways to hack and mold news pieces to fit.

We’re incredibly excited (and relieved) that we’ve been able to get this project started, and are looking forward to sharing this cross-country journey with you!