Students in the Michael J. Coles College of Business are helping a combat veteran sow the seeds of a better future for fellow vets at his farm 45 miles north of campus in Calhoun.

Mike Reynolds retired from the military in 2012 following 18 years as a U.S. Army flight medic, when he suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq. He said students in the Coles College Scholars Program, an initiative that gives high-achieving business students opportunities for leadership development, community engagement and mentorship, are helping him achieve his dream of assisting other veterans in readjusting to civilian life.

“A lot of guys come out of the military without something to do,” Reynolds said. “Our goal is to give these people a mission.”

Since spring semester 2020, the students have been working with Reynolds to grow his nonprofit, Hero Agriculture, which teaches farming skills to veterans that they can use to run their own agricultural businesses. Unable to return to his previous job as a paramedic and firefighter, he began learning farming from a family friend, purchased some land, and soon realized there were others like him.

Hero Ag’s relationship with the Scholars started when Coles College namesake Michael J. Coles introduced Reynolds to Stacy Campbell, executive director of the Scholars Program and a member of the Hero Ag board of directors. The program’s annual service-learning education abroad trip to the Dominican Republic was canceled due to the pandemic, and Coles and Campbell saw assisting Hero Ag as a worthy alternative.

“Mike’s story was inspiring,” Coles said. “This veteran had come back broken, unable to do the job he had done, and was searching for a new purpose. He found it in farming and now is helping other veterans find their own renewed purpose.”

Students have so far developed marketing and business plans for Hero Ag, launched a website and social media channels, created print and digital promotional materials, built cost-modeling tools, and, most recently, organized an open house at Reynolds’ 82-acre farm.

“This experience has helped me grow as a business student because it’s given me the experience of working directly with a client, rather than learning about working with clients in class,” said Catherine Allsteadt, a senior marketing student and Scholar who helped organize the open house. “It’s been fun and exciting to help Hero Ag grow while I’m still a student. It has helped me confirm that marketing is where I want to be after I graduate.”

A team of six students worked on the open house project with the goal of introducing Hero Ag and its mission to the community. They invited potential donors, veterans and local students in 4H and the Future Farmers of America clubs; handled many of the logistics such as securing tables, chairs, portable bathrooms and handwashing stations; and created a 3D rendering of a proposed veterans’ learning center Reynolds wants to build on the property.

“The event was a success,” said Campbell. “Mike was able to talk about his goals and needs for the nonprofit, while guests got to hear from veterans themselves. Mike had a really big vision for the event, and our students were able to use the tools they’ve learned in class to identify and track tasks so that we were ready.”

The Coles Scholars will continue working with Hero Ag each semester going forward. And as Hero Ag continues to grow – the Department of Defense recently awarded Hero Ag a SkillBridge certification allowing active-duty military to receive job training there before getting out – Reynolds is more grateful than ever to have the support.

“We’re a very small organization with small budget,” he said. “This has been like having our own well-staffed small business planning agency that steps in and knows what needs to be done.”

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