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CreatiVets helps veterans through
artistic expression

The story

CreatiVets, a Nashville-based nonprofit, gives U.S. military combat veterans the opportunity to heal their trauma by telling their story through songwriting and visual art.

Over the last decade, CreatiVets has grown from a personal passion of founder Richard Casper, a Marine Corps veteran and Purple Heart recipient, to a nationwide success story that has served almost 1,600 veterans to date. The organization has been featured in an Amazon Alexa commercial and has appeared on The Today Show.

“I’ve had people say (to me) ‘I don’t like art. I don’t like water therapy. I don’t like horses,’ but never once has someone said, ‘I don’t like music.’” Casper said about realizing early on the potential of CreatiVets, “So, I really felt like I was on to something, something that was bigger than myself, bigger than anything that’s ever really existed, and if we do it right, we can not only heal the veterans going through our program, but we’re going to heal people who just listen to our music.”

CreatiVets’ most well-known program brings veterans dealing with PTS (post-traumatic stress), who may be struggling to reintegrate back into civilian society or even on the brink of suicide, to Nashville to tell their story through song.

Once in Nashville, veterans are first treated to a songwriter round, where local music industry songwriters get on stage and play popular songs they have written. This introduces the veterans to what songwriting is to foreshadow what they will be doing in the program.  Next, each veteran is taken to the world-famous Grand Ole Opry, where they and their mentor (a CreatiVets program alum who has similar life experiences to the veteran) are paired with professional songwriters. Here, they share their story with the songwriter, and a song begins to take shape.

“I always say if there’s a story you can’t tell, but you can tell it one time in that writing room, you can put it into a song,” Brett Gillan, program director, said. “Now you can just play that song for people. You never have to tell that story again.”

Once the song is written, it’s performed and recorded by some of the best Nashville musicians, like the drummer from Kenny Chesney’s band and the keyboard player from Garth Brooks’ band.

On top of having a song the veteran can return to or share with friends, CreatiVets aims to craft a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The type of person who is selected from its lengthy waitlist is usually struggling mightily. Because of this, the organization goes above and beyond with the experience.

“A lot of the veteran participants don’t even want to leave their homes,” Gillan said. “So, we have to outweigh their anxiety and depression with excitement to get them on the plane to come out to our programs because, otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. But if we’re like, ‘Hey, do you want to write with a number-one songwriter backstage at the Grand Ole Opry and see some of the best musicians record your song,’ you can’t turn that down.”

While the Nashville songwriting experience is CreatiVets’ flagship program, the organization has also partnered with art schools across the country for a multi-week visual art program with between eight and 10 students per class. At no cost to the veterans, they get access to the art studios and equipment at the schools (which include Belmont University in Nashville, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Glassell School of Art in Houston).

The program educates them on different artistic mediums like sculpting, ceramics, painting and more. At the end of the program, there’s a gallery show open to the public where each attendee can show and discuss their piece if they’d like. Many of the pieces created in these programs have gone on to be included in galleries across the country, from the National Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus to the Denver International Airport terminal concourse.

The organization started in 2013 when Casper was living in Chicago with dreams of joining the CIA or FBI. To get closer to that dream, he enrolled in community college. He planned to major in business but failed when he forgot his password to the online learning portal due to the brain injury he suffered in Iraq.

After that, he decided his experience guarding the President at Camp David combined with any degree might be enough to get accepted into the CIA or FBI. So, he enrolled as an art major. After graduating, he decided to apply to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most prestigious in the country. Richard sold himself to admissions by saying he wanted to create art so the viewer would “feel what it’s like to be blown up in war.” To his surprise, he got in.

It was during this time that Casper found art as a form of expression that could help him with his trauma. He first met CreatiVets co-founder Linda Tarrson, an experienced philanthropist, at a restaurant, laying the foundation of the organization. “Basically, it literally saved his life to be able to express himself through art and music,” Kyle Yepsen, deputy director of CreatiVets, said. “He had seen first-hand how it helped him, and he had this idea of bringing other veterans through the same experiences. He proposed (the nonprofit concept) to Linda.  She loved the idea and agreed to help.”

Community impact

CreatiVets’ mission is to help veterans and, in turn, communities. But their impact is starting to be felt beyond the veterans who get selected for their programs.

“We want to improve relationships and help them find fellow veterans and build those relationships with veterans and the civilian community at large.”

CreatiVets now has a nationwide network of “chapters” where experienced attendees and mentors of their programs can create their own local art and music classes for veterans in their community.

“They put together a group of veterans that might be interested in it,” Gillan said. “We help them craft a class structure so they can teach or offer it to veterans in their community. It’s great for giving more veterans an opportunity to dip their foot in the water of the creative arts and see if it’s something they want to do. Then, they can graduate to one of our bigger programs.”

These chapter classes can help veterans stuck on CreatiVets’ long waiting list for its flagship programs.

Gillan and Yepsen, who both joined the organization in 2017, run the day-to-day at CreatiVets. Early on, former board member and current Insperity Business Performance Advisor Bryce Jenney came to them and demonstrated the need for a quality human capital management system.

“He recognized that we were in dire need of a quality payroll solution, along with employee management software,” Yepsen said. “I couldn’t imagine living without it. The payroll features (help us) make sure that we are compliant with the ever-changing state laws and help us avoid issues with our remote employees.”

Insperity also helped CreatiVets create a new employee handbook, customizing it to their needs and providing compliance support with employer responsibilities and state-specific laws as the organization grows and evolves.

For its 10th anniversary, CreatiVets is expanding its reach to new communities, both in the U.S. and globally, with some exciting new programs and celebrations.

Next summer, they will be doing an astrophotography program on a Native American reservation with Native American veterans. They also hope to bring U.S. Vietnam War veterans back to Vietnam to participate in joint art programs with Vietnamese veterans and create shared healing opportunities.

For Veterans’ Day 2023, CreatiVets released a 10-year anniversary album with 10 songs, available on all major streaming platforms. And in December, the organization will host a 10th Anniversary Gala in Nashville featuring special guest performances by Nashville musicians and testimonials from program alumni.

Despite the relentless work to support veterans with PTS through music and art in every corner of the country, CreatiVets gives all the credit to the veterans who found ways to heal. “We never say CreatiVets saved their life,” Gillan said. “They saved their own life. We just gave them the tools to do it.”