[NASHVILLE] Are we there? I wasn't convinced when Hail Mary, my nav system full of grace, told us we had arrived at Project 615. I hopped out into the humidity and walked up the choppy sidewalk; at the top of the hill, connected to the side of Set Free Church, was a large, whitewashed building with the logo emblazoned on the outside.
At least we figured out beforehand that the "615" in Project 615 corresponds to the Nashville area code, saving me the embarrassment of asking that dumb question. We also knew this from their website:
"Project 615 was first formed in the summer of 2010 after co-founders Derek Evans and Matt Blinco visited one of the nation's largest homeless communities, Skid Row, in downtown Los Angeles, California. Both Derek and Matt realized that they wanted to do something about the ever-increasing homeless population locally back in Nashville. They decided to start Project 615 as a fundraising and awareness effort for the homeless."
Project 615 supports the homeless in Nashville through the sale of their T-shirts: "One of our main objectives is to help restore the those who are on the path of recovery from homelessness, addiction and mental illness. We work side by side with Set Free ministries in Nashville. Set Free houses 40-plus men who are recovering from homelessness, drug/alcohol addiction and mental illness. Most of our apparel benefits Set Free. The money given to Set Free is used to help house and rehabilitate the lives of these men. Since beginning Project 615 in the fall of 2010, we have been able to donate more than $55,000 to Set Free."
They also support homeless men returning to independence by giving them jobs: "We believe in empowering and transforming those who are on the path of recovery and turning them into better citizens of society and for God's Kingdom. Project 615 hires men from Set Free ministries and trains them and gives them the skill of T-shirt making/screen printing."
We headed inside to see what else we could learn about this shop with the cool T-shirts and the warm heart.
We were cordially greeted by Derek and ushered into his small, simple office. A fan in the corner was doing its darnedest to keep up with the oppressive heat. I fumbled with our brand-new video equipment and quizzed Derek about what they were doing, who, when, where and how. Take a listen.
The Project 615 T-shirt business model relies on a steady stream of custom screen-printing clients. They do work for businesses, schools and churches, organizations--anyone who needs a great T-shirt designed and printed. Project 615 donates a percentage of their profits to Set Free Church, an organization with branches across the country that serve to help homeless men struggling with addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and other obstacles to break free of their lifestyle.
Instead of asking people for money, Derek said, they decided to create a product that people wanted to buy. It was a unique way to change lives and gave them a greater mission than just showing up for work.
The financial contribution is significant: It makes up one-third of the church's annual budget. But Project 615 goes even further; when we visited, they were employing four men from Set Free in their screen printing shop, helping them learn a trade and earn an income.
"We felt the best way to rehabilitate someone is to give them a job and hold their hand a little bit. ….so that’s what we do," Derek said.
Each has a different story: post-traumatic stress disorder, drug use, etc. The men work for a few years, get on their feet and move on with their lives.
Along with their custom screen-printing services, Project 615 creates its own line of T-shirts, many with quirky Nashville themes and others to support various causes near and dear to their hearts. This was the line from which I selected the shirts for Local Universe.
"We’re a full-service T-shirt company, but we just have a mission behind what we do, and we have our own line. Not too many T-shirt companies that do custom orders have their own line and vice versa," Derek said. "We have the best of both worlds, because we can do both."
Derek manages the business side of things, experience he gained managing a radio station in Anderson, Indiana, during college. Both Derek and Matt are, coincidentally, from our neck of the woods in Indiana, graduates of Taylor University just north of Indianapolis and south of Fort Wayne.
Matt is the main graphic designer, though both collaborate on Project 615 T-shirt design ideas. With his experience in screen printing, they can come up with a T-shirt design and have it printed within an hour.
We headed downstairs to Matt's domain, where the temperature rose yet again. Not that I knew anything much about screen printing, but I guess I expected some automation. Not in a shop as small as this, Derek explained. He walked us through the process, showing us where the shirts spin on paddles, getting a new color on each pass. We watched the guys ink the screens, saw the quiet back yard where they're washed and dried, and perused the wall pasted with Bible quotes and T-shirt designs.
We even got to talk to Brad, a young man working at Project 615 and living at Set Free who was willing--make that eager--to share his story.
He was on fire with faith, hope and passion about his new future--he was studying to be a minister. With his forthright energy and clear-eyed joy, I have no doubt he will be a monumental success.
We left Project 615 feeling a little emotionally drained and physically hot. I wanted to find a spot to sit and work for a bit, so we hopped in the car and went back down to the main drag on Broadway. We paid a billion dollars for a spot at a public lot and carted my laptop into a cool, dark honkey tonk. The performers were just ok, and the smell from the bathrooms at the back was truly wretched. But we had a table and a cocktail for a bit, until I connected with Veronica, founder with her son Jordan of Soberdough. Green light to meet with her at her kitchen and pick up some product! But she’s on the south side of the metro area, and Nashville has that big-city traffic. So we hightailed it to the highway.