SAVANNAH, Georgia — Tyler Merritt has taken the saying "It takes a village to raise a child" and turned it a bit sideways. He's building a village, literally, to allow adults to raise themselves up. His village is a stabilizing rail, or a steppingstone to a better life.
Merritt, a former Army captain and special operations air mission commander, is trying to help his military brothers and sisters who have found themselves post-military service and one paycheck away from financial collapse, as well as those struggling to find their way through modern civilian life, which does not begin and end with a stated purpose in the way military service does.
"Our most recent initiative is our veterans village," said Merritt, whose post-military life makes him an unlikely entrepreneur and philanthropist as the CEO of Nine Line Apparel and president of Nine Line Foundation.
Merritt is standing outside the massive apparel store he founded in 2012 that quickly went from a handful of employees, mostly family, to a staff of more than 240, mostly veterans. He's also built up a deeply loyal cross-country customer base for the company's patriotic gear.
He is unassuming and charming, and he never sits still. On this bright and warm Georgia day, Merritt is pacing back and forth, phone in hand, trying to connect airline executives with families who lost loved ones in a military training accident and get them to their family members as quickly as possible.
The Nine Line facility has a retail component that does brisk business despite being located far from the downtown Savannah business district. Inside, employees are making the shirts and gear for the online and storefront retail operations. Outside, a model of one of the tiny houses Merritt is building for homeless veterans sits proudly for anyone to tour.
He's built 20 of them. Well, he and 100 of his closest friends (of which he has an eclectic assortment). All he did was put one Facebook post up saying he needed help building 20 tiny homes for veterans, and people from all walks of life responded accordingly, with a community forming around his dream of providing temporary housing for homeless veterans.
That community became the village.
"We had food brought in, and we had some entertainment and some interesting characters," he said modestly as he peeled off names of WWE wrestlers who are big fans of Nine Line. "The Undertaker was down here. We had Dustin Rhodes, Diamond Dallas Page, some country music stars, too: Craig Morgan and Luke Combs."
He added: "The red-blooded Americans that not only follow them but also follow us just showed up, along with skilled laborers and people in the community to help bang nails together. Those who are not skilled laborers — they bring the camaraderie."
Statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs show that homeless veterans are predominantly male and make up approximately 11% of all adult homelessness. Almost half served during the Vietnam era.
Merritt described his interaction with the Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless. "When we first met with the homeless authority, they asked what we can do, and I said, basically, 'let's get started now.'"
Nine Line has also partnered with Georgia Southern University, which will provide vocational training and career counseling along with a new aquaponics center it is building right here on the sprawling apparel-making property.
"We're going to have a beautiful 80-foot-by-40-foot, state-of-the-art aquaponics center that's going to be the training initiative for these homeless veterans," he explained. "They're going to be transported here and taught a skill set of how to manage this highly complex agricultural environment where fish feed plants, plants feed fish."
The produce that is harvested will go toward physically healing them, but the excess produce will also be sold at places such as farmers markets, with all the money going back into the foundation initiatives.
"So, it's an idea of this venture entrepreneurism that it truly become a representation of what we're trying to accomplish, which is a self-contained ecosystem," he said.
Merritt said the initiative holds no galas to snag big donors. Nor does it get government assistance. This is all by design. "That's not us," he says. "We do barbecues. We do shooting matches. We have things that are completely donated, and all the proceeds go towards these initiatives and, eventually, this aquaponics center. It's all with a purpose, and it is all self-sustaining. That's how you build communities and villages."
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