Living in Cedar Rapids doesn’t mean what it used to. Neither does living in Halabja, Iraq. Or Rwanda. Or Cuba.
Because even as populations swell and communities sprawl, the world gets smaller — thanks, in part, to things like technology and to people like Jason Everett.
The U.S. Army veteran, University of Iowa and Kirkwood Community College alumnus and Cedar Rapids resident — now serving in the Iowa National Guard — has experienced that phenomenon firsthand. In fact, he’s propelled it.
In 2016, after Donald Trump was elected president and foreign policy appeared to be shifting, Everett, now 39, thought his window to see Cuba might be closing.
He was an avid world traveler — joining the Army in 2004, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan during his time in the military, and living for a stretch in the conflicted West Bank in the Middle East. So he and a friend bought a ticket to the Caribbean nation so they could be sure to see it.
“But I was not really excited about it,” Everett said. “I had been really indecisive about what to do with my future. And here I am, just gallivanting off to go do an international trip somewhere that was just going to be a stamp on my passport and a conversation over a beer.”
But then he saw a documentary that would alter the course of his life. It was, of all things, about skateboarding.
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It showed how many in Cuba don’t have boards like those in the United States. The Cuban skaters make do with plywood and other second-rate materials.
So Everett put out a call on Facebook.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to Cuba and it would be really cool to take a few skateboards.”
The post blew up online and spread around the world, with friends and strangers from Iowa to as far as China sending him boards. Companies including Eduskate Board Shop and Rekon Skateboards donated boards. In the end, Everett brought 22 new skateboards with him to Cuba.
“Me and my friend, we just skateboarded around Cuba, and we gave out skateboards,” he said. “It was really impactful.”
And not just for the Cuban skaters.
“That was the genesis of these community-engagement travel projects,” Everett said.
Since “Appreci-skate Cuba,” as he coined it, Everett has brought hundreds of kites to kids in Uganda and Rwanda, partnered with an American nonprofit to raise money through origami to provide clean water and launched the “HOPE Mural Project,” capitalizing on the connective power of graffiti.
With Chicago-area schoolteacher Nancy Bartosz, Everett coordinated the work of 15 artists spanning 10 countries on dozens of murals aimed at bringing “HOPE” to the world.
“I had this idea, like, ‘How can we better connect and maybe create a more sustainable relationship between people over there and here?” Everett said. “And I came up with the idea of a collaborative mural.”
The idea was to bring together artists from across the globe to work on the same “HOPE” mural, and Everett looked no farther than his backyard of Eastern Iowa for some help.
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Melissa Collins of Cedar Rapids was charged with creating two of the letter “H.” Likewise, Mike Stenerson of Iowa City did the “E’s”
Kurdish artists Awa F. Bakr and Vanila Van, both of Erbil, Iraq, did “O” and “P,” respectively, with the first completed mural combining the Iowa and Iraqi letters on one oversized 7-foot by 4-foot canvass displayed in Erbil and Halabja, Iraq in February during a series of art projects for refugee children.
The quad’s second collaborative mural is set to rise above Cedar Rapids on a historically-relevant date — this Friday, June 7, just in time for the 11th anniversary of the historic 2008 flood.
The “HOPE” mural will greet those coming into or passing by Cedar Rapids through June 24 from atop the Veterans Memorial Building.
“The flood was definitely one of the most catastrophic and disastrous events Cedar Rapids has ever experienced,” Everett said. “But out of it, I thought, there was a lot of beauty displayed. And unity of people.”
Darrell Anderson, chairman of the Veterans Memorial Commission, said the mural project leverages Everett’s service to the country with his passion for bringing people together.
“We are thrilled that Jason is able make his mark, globally, for peace,” he said.
Everett said he hopes that mark lasts in this community — and elsewhere — long after the mural comes down.
“Hope and art are two things that transcend the barriers of language, geography, religion, politics and culture,” he said.
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