The phone calls were what pushed Sarah Hill over the edge. Those voicemails from women in their 80s and 90s telling her that their veteran husbands didn’t have long to live, asking was there any way she could get them to Washington, D.C., to see their memorials …
“Who could say no to that?” Hill asks.
At the time an Emmy-winning anchor for KOMU-TV 8, Hill had faith that if she shared the veterans’ stories, mid-Missourians would respond with donations to get the veterans to their memorials, before it was too late.
“And that’s exactly what they did,” she says.
A Passion For Veterans
That was in 2009. By the time Hill moved to Veterans United Home Loans to be the company’s chief storyteller in 2012, she had put together dozens of “Sarah’s Stories” for KOMU about veterans and Central Missouri Honor Flight, the organization her stories helped launch three years earlier. She developed an affinity with veterans and a passion for telling their stories.
“So naturally, the opportunity to come here to Veterans United where that was my job description was highly appealing to me,” she says.
Hill’s move to Veterans United, the Columbia-based lender specializing in VA-backed mortgages, came at a time when the company was drawing both national attention for its growth — earning recognition on the Inc. 500 list as one of the country’s fastest-growing companies — and local attention for snatching up several big names in the local business community as it expanded its personnel.
In announcing her hire, Kris Farmer, Veterans United chief marketing officer, called Hill “an incredible storyteller” and “a social media visionary,” citing her national and global following on Google Plus, but he also noted her devotion to veterans as a main reason Veterans United “couldn’t be more thrilled to have her on the team.”
“Sarah’s vision, talents and passion for helping veterans are a perfect fit for Veterans United,” Farmer said.
For Sarah, the offer was a “fist pump” moment.
“I was really excited to have a more flexible schedule that allowed me more time with my husband, teenagers and mother-in-law, who now lives with us,” says Hill, a 43-year-old mother of two. “I wanted to work with people who push the boundaries of what’s possible, and I knew the innovators at VU could teach me things. Add in the charity work that Veterans United Foundation does, and it was meant to be. They had me at ‘Veterans.’ ”
Close To Her Heart
As chief storyteller, Hill produces, writes, reports and edits video stories of military men and women throughout the country. She’s also a “human media” strategist, building relationships through face-to-face online communication, particularly through group video chat. In both roles, she spends much of her time interacting directly with veterans and their families, and that interaction with the nation’s heroes keeps her in love with her job.
“After spending all that time telling veterans’ stories, talking with them day in and day out, how could I not be inspired by what they do?” she asks. “You don’t need a personal connection to be inspired by the fact that they fought for our freedom and now it’s our turn to give back to them and to fight for some of their needs, housing being just one of them.”
Although she might not need a personal connection, Hill does have one. Her maternal grandfather, Russell Hellwig, was a staff sergeant and bombardier in World War II, serving in France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Hill’s mother was born while Hellwig was overseas, and he didn’t see his daughter until she was 2 years old.
“I think about that and what that would be like, and that’s just one sacrifice he made,” says Hill, who wears her grandfather’s dog tags on her bracelet every day. “These guys wrote out blank checks — payable up to and including their lives — and we as civilians need to recognize that effort and do everything we can to make sure they have everything they need.”
Mission: Raise Awareness
The video stories Hill creates for Veterans United do both — recognize and offer help. Hill explains the videos get the word out that a VA home loan benefit exists, something even many veterans do not know.
“You say, ‘G.I. Bill,’ and people think education,” she says. “So it’s up to us, not only to educate veterans but also to talk with civilians who have the ability to share this with veterans: ‘Hey, did you know that you have a VA home loan benefit that you earned through your service? Did you know you have the ability to take advantage of it with no down payment and other benefits that come with the VA Home Loan Program?’ ”
Hill produces videos profiling Veterans United homeowners and posts them on www.vu.com/inside. The poignant stories have such titles as “Military Child with Brain Disorder Finds Comfort at Home” and “Veterans United Helps Oklahoma Tornado Survivor Rebuild Her Life.”
“We did a story recently about a borrower who was homeless, living on the streets of San Francisco, and now he has a home, thanks to Veterans United,” Hill says. “That happens all the time. We were in Michigan not too long ago, talking with a veteran who had throat cancer and had to declare bankruptcy due to medical bills. Veterans United was able to put him in touch with the resources that allowed him to rebuild his credit profile and purchase a home …
“It’s all about educating both veterans and real estate agents on this amazing benefit,” she says. “These veterans and service members deserve to understand how this benefit works. It’s our job to help them. I’m honored to do it.”
The Human Media Shift
Sarah Hill is known nationwide for her social media prowess. When she came to Veterans United, she brought with her the 45th-largest following on Google Plus. She’s a pioneer of the “human media” movement, which is shifting user interaction on social media from text-based engagement to face-to-face contact via webcam, and at Veterans United, she hosts Google Plus Hangouts (webcasts) and live YouTube events.
Hill shares some insights into her social media world.
How were you able to gain such an enormous following on Google Plus?
It was dumb luck really. We gained the following by interacting with a lot of people in Hangouts. Google found it interesting how we were using its tools, so it put us on a suggested user list for Google Plus.
How are you using social media to connect with veterans in meaningful ways?
With a group of tech-interested volunteers, we host “Hero Tours” for terminally ill and aging veterans who are not able to physically travel on Honor Flights to see their memorials. Over the last couple of years, thanks to a grant from Veterans United Foundation, we’ve taken hundreds of veterans on virtual tours to the World War II, 9/11 and even the Korean Memorial in Korea.
A veteran in Laddonia desperately wanted to go back to the beaches of Normandy, where he lost buddies on D-Day. Using live video and a volunteer videographer in France, this veteran was able to hear and see the sound of the waves in France from a computer in his dining room. In the future, I’d love for someone to grow that program to include veterans in other states.
You hosted the first Hangout on broadcast television just three years ago for KOMU and talk a lot about the shift to human media. Why is it important for businesses to catch this shift?
Human media is fueling a “see-commerce” evolution that’s unfolding before our very eyes. It’s like companies are meeting their online customers and social media followings for the first time. Columbia — the heart of the Silicon Prairie — is on the forefront of this shift. Look at how Coach Gary Pinkel is using Hangouts. The Boone County Courthouse already uses a live video feed to bring defendants into the courtroom. Even politicians like Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander recently used human media to talk about veterans in transition.
Live group video chat is a powerful tool to humanize your brand. Now with a new feature called “Google Helpouts,” people are able to provide services in a video chat room and get paid for them with a Google Wallet transaction. So someone in Columbia, Mo., could teach guitar lessons to someone in New Zealand and get paid to do it. You hear that? It’s the world shrinking!
This global de-spatialization means industries can crowd source for customers from around the world and do business with them face-to-face. I’m geeked to see how the Silicon Prairie might leverage these tools for finance, medicine and education.
With more than 4 million social media followers, Veterans United is the most followed mortgage brand in the world.
Veterans United Foundation
Along with homeowner videos, Sarah Hill also creates videos documenting the work of the Veterans United Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization funded and driven by Veterans United employees. Those videos appear on the foundation’s website, www.enhancelives.com.
Find Sarah Hill Online
Love & Journalism
Sarah Hill grew up in the small northeast Missouri town of Canton. She met her husband, Rob Hill, when he came into her seventh-grade science class looking for someone to write about sports for the high school newspaper. He was already in high school, and Sarah was smitten.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I like sports’ — and I didn’t care for sports at the time,” she says. “So he likes to joke that he launched my journalism career.”
Sarah and Rob have been married 22 years. Their 19-year-old son, Tyler, is a college sophomore, and their 17-year-old daughter, Ally, is a Rock Bridge High School junior.