HawkStrong: HFC helped Jay Elias turn his life around

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Jay Elias sitting on the ground with metal sculptures.

After graduating from Aviation High School in Queens, NY in 1987, Jay Elias did not find the idea of college appealing in the least.

So he joined the United States Marine Corps.

“I was just trying to find a way out of my neighborhood. My parents were working-class, and we didn’t live in a very affluent neighborhood. I didn’t want to go to college. The options available to my graduating class at the time were: college, work, or the military. I joined the Marines and hoped I could learn something,” said Elias.

Born in Manhattan, Elias is the eldest of two sons. He lives in Detroit and has one son and one grandson.

Elias served in the USMC for four years, receiving an honorable discharge in 1991. His highest rank was L-3 (lance corporal). He served overseas in the Gulf War, where his primary specialty was vehicle recovery specialist. He would transport tanks and other vehicles back to base and repair them.

Trouble readjusting to civilian life

After leaving the USMC, Elias struggled. He had trouble dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This led to struggles with addiction. He eventually got into an altercation that led to an 11-year prison sentence.

“I had difficulty reintegrating,” he said. “When I got out of prison, I struggled again. I endured more trauma and stress in prison, which only compounded my PTSD. I wandered from odd job to odd job, struggled with addiction, fought depression, and even became suicidal.”

He managed to fight his way back through art, and by getting the help he needed through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

“I started carving stone,” he said. “I really enjoy the creative process – that’s what rescued me.”

Finding his inner voice through art

As he was discovering the healing power of art, Elias received mental health counseling through the VA.

“It’s been a steady recovery process,” explained Elias. “Art has helped me find and express my inner voice. At first, I couldn’t speak about my trauma. Art facilitated that for me.”

While living in Puerto Rico, a friend suggested Elias move to Detroit because it has a thriving arts community. He took that advice in 2013, finding affordable housing and a modicum of stability.

He also switched media. Instead of working in stone, he now works in metal, which he calls a “very cathartic process.” He founded an art studio called Evolution Art Studio and a non-profit organization called Metal Health, which explores the creative process in an attempt to promote mental health and healing from various types of trauma, particularly for veterans and first responders.

Video about Jay Elias’ “Metal Health” program

produced by Robert Schlip, HFC Honors student


Enter Aaron T. Kinzel

Several years, ago, Elias met Aaron T. Kinzel, a Ph.D. candidate who teaches criminology and criminal justice at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Kinzel spent nearly a decade in prison and shares his personal experiences to teach others about the criminal justice system. Kinzel also serves as the executive director of the Youth Justice Fund,whose mission is to assist people sentenced in their youth with services and resources to ensure they can become a contributing member of society.

Elias and Kinzel became fast friends.

“He suggested I return to school and study psychology,” said Elias. “He encouraged me to do that. He’s been a good role model and mentor to me.”

Elias inquired with enrollment advisors at several area universities about their programs. They all suggested he begin his education at a community college. So he applied to HFC in 2021.

HFC has been life-changing

HFC turned out to be life-changing for Elias. He enrolled at the College and connected with HFC Veterans Services, which has helped ease his transition into academics. Elias is attending HFC through the Veteran Readiness and Employment program, which is also called Chapter 31.

“HFC has been super welcoming,” said Elias. “(Enrollment Associate IV/Veterans Services) Gail Bock is an amazing resource. She’s totally on-point, totally for students, and totally for vets. She’s facilitated my experience here at HFC to the nth degree.”

Bock has enjoyed working with Elias.

“It has been a pleasure getting to know Jay since he began his education at HFC,” said Bock. “He is very dedicated in his education and has shared his outside interests in providing support for others. He is a very impressive person, and I’m glad I have been able to work with him.”

Joining the Henry Ford II Honors Program

Elias has taken psychology and fine arts classes at the College. He is majoring in psychology and plans to graduate in 2023. HFC English instructor Dr. John Rietz recommended he join the Henry Ford II Honors Program.

Elias, who has a 4.0 GPA, is one of several honors students who presented at the Honors Symposium in December 2022. He was also a speaker at the November 2022 HFC Board of Trustees meeting, and spoke at the launch of the HFC/Wayne State University Learn4ward partnership.

"Jay was in my ENG 131 class in the Fall 2021 semester, and I was so impressed with him as a student that I recommended him to the Honors Program," said Rietz. "In getting to know him since, I've been profoundly impressed with his life's ambition: to help veterans overcome trauma through art therapy. Jay has an artist's spirit, which makes time spent with him exciting and liberating. I come away with a sense of expanded possibility. It's an honor to know him."

Among Elias' favorite professors are Rieitz, Honors Program Director Dr. Adam Hazlett, psychology instructor Alison Buchanan, and English instructor Dr. Peter Kim.

“I met Jay during an Honors Program orientation and was immediately impressed with his dedication to his art and his dedication to his Metal Health non-profit. I reached out to him to contribute to the newspaper, and he obliged with a wonderful story on the Schvitz Health Club, which is in the November issue of The Mirror News,” said Kim. “Jay has a love for connecting people and a passion for making a difference in his community. Knowing my interest in Detroit history, Jay connected me with the president of a company interested in the historic Ford Highland Park Plant administrative building – the birthplace of the moving assembly line – who gave me a short tour of the facility where he shared his ideas for repurposing the building and the hope to get investors to make his ideas a reality.”

Becoming the best version of himself

After graduating from HFC, Elias plans to transfer as a junior to the Irvin D. Reid Honors College at Wayne State University. There, he plans to major in psychology. He aspires to a career in art therapy, his ultimate goal.

Elias recently applied for Phi Theta Kappa: International College Honor Society membership. He has been nominated to join the National Society of Leadership and Success.

Much of this success has been due to his experiences at HFC.

“HFC has changed my life in so many ways. I’m much more grateful for so many things than I was before,” he said. “HFC changed my point of view and gave me new hope for the future by seeing how motivated many young people are. So many classmates have inspired me and motivated me to do well and to not care what other people think.”

Elias continued: “This experience has allowed for a lot of self-introspection, which has improved my mental health. It’s given me a sense of empowerment. Knowledge is life-changing. Being around so many people who are so dedicated to students like Dr. Kim and Dr. Rietz – those folks challenged me to excel, to be the best version of myself.”