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Meet Joe McClain

Meet Joe McClain

A mentor once told me, “When you stop growing, you start dying.” He’d be thrilled to know that quote is the mantra I live by.

I’m Joe McClain, Captain U.S. Navy (Retired). To those in our industry, I am the CEO of the national nonprofit Help Heal Veterans, or Heal Vets. To my wife and kids, I’m a “warrior hippie” with passions for drawing, the martial arts and playing the guitar. But no matter my varying hats, one thing remains consistent: I am in a never-ending quest for the opportunities that challenge me to grow and to make an impact. That’s informed every step of my experiences to date, across my academic background, professional endeavors and personal aspirations.

I began my career in the U.S. Navy. Today I feel blessed that I continue to serve. At Heal Vets, I help to play an important role in supporting America’s veterans, military members and their families through the healing power of arts and crafts. I’m proud to say that Heal Vets has been a member of AFCI since 1990 and, come January, I’m humbled to be joining the Association’s Board, serving alongside a cohort of our industry’s remarkable leaders.

My career has left me with a diverse portfolio leading large, complex, and multinational organizations, both in the Navy and across the business sector. I’ll reckon that my professional background deviates slightly from many AFCI members, but I also know that it’s the diversity of our backgrounds that creates the strength of our industry.

In the Navy, I served in a variety of operational command and staff positions, including numerous overseas deployments flying the carrier-based S-3B Viking jet aircraft. I was the Commanding Officer of the “Blue Wolves” of Sea Control Squadron 35 (VS-35) and the Commodore of the Sea Control Wing Atlantic, one of the Navy’s larger organizations with some 1,300 sailors in seven different squadrons and 60 combat aircraft.

To set the record straight here, flying off aircraft carriers for a living is as fun as it looks.

After 28 years, I closed out my military service with a position working for the Secretary of the Navy at the U.S. House of Representatives. While there, I helped to develop and implement the Navy’s legislative strategy. It was a rewarding job, and one that gave me the unique ability to see our legislative process at work.

My stint on Capitol Hill opened a myriad of opportunities across the business sector. I served as the president of the Beer Institute, the trade association for brewers and importers, an organization that is similar in both mission and scope to AFCI. My friends joked that I went from one classic dream job (flying off of aircraft carriers) to another (the beer industry). They weren’t so far off.

But my desire to serve never left me, and in September 2015, I assumed the most empowering and inspiring position I’ve had yet. I joined Heal Vets as the nonprofit’s CEO.

Established in 1971, Heal Vets has provided free therapeutic arts and crafts kits to hospitalized and homebound veterans for generations. Working with clinicians, therapists and other AFCI members, we’ve developed and manufactured a range of craft kits that helps to heal the invisible wounds of war. What we can’t manufacture ourselves, we purchase or receive donations and gifts in kind from fellow AFCI members.

Since inception, we’ve delivered more than 32 million of these arts and crafts kits to veterans and veteran facilities across America, along with active duty military overseas. Kits range in categories to include woodworking, leather, models, needlecrafts, jewelry and paint-by-numbers, among so many others. The kits help injured and recuperating veterans improve fine motor skills and cognitive functioning, manage stress and substance abuse, and cope with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. It also improves their sense of self-esteem and overall physical and mental health.

Almost daily I get letters from veterans or family members with quotes such as, “I don’t think about suicide as much anymore,” or “Completing a craft kit helps take my mind off of the pain.” Our anecdotal evidence, backed by the support of clinicians, proves our mission: the creative arts can help save the lives of those who have served.

One of our Heal Vets Board members, Dr. Keith Stussei M.D., recently wrote this in an article: “Craft therapy has been proven to be extremely effective in treating those with PTSD, and there is ample evidence to suggest that craft therapy has a positive overall impact on brain function. First and foremost, craft therapy helps vets take their minds off the events that may have led to their illness. Engaging in craft activities has been shown to address cognitive, neurological, and sensory-motor needs by targeting performance skills. In fact, craft therapy has been shown to help promote the use of right- and left- brain functioning and help maintain cognitive functioning.”

AFCI members and the creative arts have a proven record of making a positive and life-changing impact on others’ lives. At Heal Vets, we see it every day. Through arts and crafts, we provide veterans the innovative tools to face some of the most trying moments as we work to help our military men and women heal from the invisible wounds of war.

I am grateful to be bringing these experiences to the AFCI Board, and am eager to meet my fellow members at Creativation in Phoenix in January. As your new AFCI Board member, I commit to live by my mentor’s words to never stop growing. Our industry has a tremendous opportunity to create radical new ways of delivering hope and change. Together, we can harness the power of our trade to transform lives, and we can share in our collective journeys to uncover untapped possibilities.

I am excited for what’s in store.

Article appeared in AFCI's own publication, Gradient, Winter 2018 edition.  To view original article, click here.

Visit AFCI's website for more information on the creative arts industry and benefits of Art Therapy.

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CFC GuideStar Great Non-Profits 2018 Veterans Employer of the Year