Inside Track: Navy veteran lends a hand
Michael Hyacinthe’s programs help past military members reintegrate into society with affordable housing, jobs.
Growing up in New York City, Michael Hyacinthe wanted to play basketball.
Considering himself a fairly decent basketball player, Hyacinthe hoped to continue beyond high school. His coach had an idea to test Hyacinthe’s perseverance by making him ride the bench early in the season. Fed up with the decision and unhappy with the coach, Hyacinthe called it quits.
“Come to find out later, I was going to start and the coach was testing me,” he said. “That moment I gave up, it taught me to know that I can never give up despite what the odds look like.”
Without the decision to quit, however, Hyacinthe might not have joined the U.S. Navy, which has led to his career today as veteran’s advocate for Habitat for Humanity of Kent County and the co-founder of the nonprofit Has Heart.
It was after his decision to quit the basketball team he decided to join the Navy in 1997, as a Seabee. The Seabees are construction engineers trained to build and fight in combat situations. As a Seabee, Hyacinthe was deployed three times: once in the Middle East, once in Guam and once with NATO in Iceland.
“Basketball played two roles in my life: As a child, it kept me out of the streets, but it also led me to join the Navy,” he said. “That final year playing basketball, I traveled all over the country, then I quit because I was impatient and young, but that led me to the Navy, which was a good thing.”
His parents were hard workers, his father a Yellow Cab driver for more than 25 years and his mother working two to three jobs. His parents made sure his family knew they’d be OK and the children would grow up to be contributing members of society.
For Hyacinthe, he’s glad he ran into the military recruiter he did. The recruiter, “some of the best salesmen you meet,” told him about the Seabees. He survived boot camp, went to school, and after six months of training, he graduated with the technical training of a construction electrician and physical and combat training.
“As a New Yorker, becoming a Seabee was a major accomplishment,” Hyacinthe said. “For me, I was able to become a Seabee, so from there, I was able to think I can continue to excel in whatever I put my mind to.”
Hyacinthe’s time as a Seabee helped him develop a high aptitude for adaptation, helping him to this day to overcome the challenges that pop up as an entrepreneur.
Perhaps more than anything to influence his career today was the brotherhood developed in the military.
“Getting out was tough,” he said. “It’s something many veterans go through. The reintegration process into society is extremely tough. One thing they teach you is a major sense of brotherhood and purpose. When you get out, you lose all of that.”
Back in New York in 2005, he began driving a Yellow Cab for his father while going to college with the G.I. Bill. College was a tough pill to swallow as an adult student in college.
“I was in the military eight years, and when you get out, people your age are much more advanced in society but haven’t overcome what you have,” he said. “You feel bad about yourself and second guess what you’ve done.”
While driving a cab, he talked to many people in various paths of life and decided he wanted to be an entrepreneur, to help share ideas and inspire others.
“Driving a Yellow Cab really allowed me to get a sense of who I was again,” he said.
He wound up in Grand Rapids when he visited his wife’s family, liking it enough to move here in 2010. Once in West Michigan, he finished his business degree at Grand Valley State University.
In 2011, he was chatting with his wife’s cousin about to be deployed to Afghanistan. They chatted about deployment, and a few months later, the cousin was killed in combat.
“I felt really bad,” he said. “It was the first time I met him and the last time. About the time we found out he was killed, I was getting familiarized with ArtPrize and how the city was coming around art, but inside, this family was devastated.”
Hyacinthe realized art could support veterans. Following a coffee meeting with Has Heart co-founder Tyler Way, the organization was founded. It started with creating designs with proceeds going to veterans but, eventually, developed into pairing wounded veterans artists to tell their stories through art. Has Heart has used the past seven ArtPrizes to unveil artwork.
“Has Heart empowers veterans to use creativity as a means to express themselves and raise awareness and connect young millennials with veterans,” he said. “We take designs and put them on products people can purchase, with the proceeds going to veterans.”
It was while he began helping others he knew he had found his right path in life, but he’s hesitant to say he’s made it without worry.
“When I knew I had opportunities to do good, that’s when I knew I’d be OK,” Hyacinthe said. “Anything can happen day to day, you often get a challenge, but you can overcome that. As an entrepreneur, you’re always supposed to challenge yourself, and because of my past, I know I can get past those challenges.”
When Habitat for Humanity learned of the program, the organization reached out, hoping to provide an opportunity to veterans.
“At the time, they wanted someone to take their veterans program and give it some purpose, credibility and empower other veterans to recognize Habitat is focused on wanting to give back to them,” Hyacinthe said.
This year, Habitat built 10 houses for veterans, and since Hyacinthe joined Habitat, the organization has performed more than 45 veteran repair projects and mentored another 30 veterans, helping them secure Veterans Affairs paperwork and helping them connect with jobs and reintegrate into society.
In 2013, Hyacinthe founded Wimage, a technology company, in a way an extension of Has Heart. Wimage takes words and converts them to images, providing an opportunity for people with disabilities to create artwork by speaking or typing a word.
Hyacinthe said he’s working with Grand Rapids Public Schools to allow elementary age children to use Wimage to create storybooks to ultimately become producers and consumers of content.
“Wimage was inspired through Has Heart,” Hyacinthe said. “It helps those with disabilities and children in developing a creative knowledge.”
He recently met with Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, enamored by the way he turned the coffee company into a global brand. It’s his goal to turn Has Heart into a brand recognized worldwide. The meeting has turned into a partnership with Starbucks and led to a pop-up shop at the coffee company’s main roastery in Seattle.
“Whatever role I can play in helping veterans find affordable housing, help them age in place and reintegrate into society, that’s a passion of mine,” he said. “I will always do that for as long as I’m able to. My long-term goal is to be an entrepreneur providing jobs to local community veterans but help other individuals who can stay focused and do the right thing to help figure out ways to give back to the community.”