Magnolia Network’s Heartwarming New Docu-Series ‘Hi, I’m’ Shares Incredible Stories
UT grads and filmmakers Jon Michael Simpson and Jeff McQuitty highlight inspiring individuals that have overcome tremendous challenges
For 14-year-old Central Texas gymnast Blake Hyland, one day would change his life forever. The teenager suffered a freak accident in 2014 that left him with a traumatic brain injury and a 50% chance of survival when placed in a medically-induced coma. Yet, like his impressive athletic career, he came out on top, beating the odds at a rate that not only impressed his doctors but inspired his community as a whole.
It was Blake’s story that was the impetus for Magnolia Network’s heart-wrenching new show, “Hi, I’m,” an Emmy-nominated documentary anthology series showcasing individuals who’ve overcome extraordinary challenges.
Director Jon Michael Simpson, a family friend of the Hylands, and filmmaker Jeff McQuitty documented Blake’s progress over the course of six years, initially as part of a short film competition.
“The prompt was about featuring someone who had overcome incredible odds and inspired hope,” Simpson recalls. The documentary won a national competition, but they weren’t ready to be done. “We kept following Blake and his recovery,” he adds.
Now, nearly a decade later, Blake will graduate Magna Cum Laude from Texas Tech University and plans to become a motivational speaker. While the show has proven to be quite popular with viewers, Simpson and McQuitty never expected the opportunity to share his story, plus the stories of others. Magnolia Network saw the film and approached the duo to produce more works.
“Chip and Joanna Gaines were looking for more content, and they felt it was the perfect type of thing they wanted to put out there,” Simpson says. “We couldn’t say yes fast enough.”
Since, Simpson and McQuitty have shared the day-to-day lives of 19-year-old Sevy Marie Eicher, an artist with Down Syndrome, and of Travis Mills, a quadruple amputee who survived an IED explosion. While the pair had six years to film, edit and explore Blake’s story, they had just two months to work with Sevy at her home in Houston, the first story explored for the “Hi, I’m” series.
“We were beyond thrilled to get to tell another incredible story,” McQuitty says. Yet they were apprehensive about how they would pull it off. “How could we go from making our first feature over the span of years to telling a story in just a few months?” he adds. “It was an incredible challenge, but the instincts are there; it’s just a new environment.”
Sevy was adopted from Bulgaria at 12, spending the formative years of her life in an institution because of her disability. Fast-forward, and Sevy, who is self-taught, is an internationally acclaimed artist, finding her voice through her colorful paintings.
The “Hi, I’m Sevy” episode asks its viewers if they can imagine being a person unable to express themselves like others. Sevy is nonverbal, yet her abstract art has not only changed the trajectory of her life but the lives of her family members as well.
“Hi, I’m Travis Mills” shares the harrowing story of a retired United States Army Staff Sergeant, who became a quadruple amputee while serving in Afghanistan, just one of five soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to survive such grievous injuries. He’s a “New Yorks Times” bestselling author and founder of the Travis Mills Foundation — created to help raise funds to aid special-needs veterans and their families.
While Sevy’s and Travis’ stories are vastly different, there is a common thread. “They are all people who have overcome great adversity. These are stories of hope, love and family,” McQuitty says.
When Simpson and McQuitty were in Maine with Travis and his family, they learned of a very important upcoming anniversary just one week into filming.
“It was going to be the tenth anniversary of his alive day,” the date of a close escape from death for a veteran, Simpson explains. “Men he served with surprised him to celebrate. We could barely keep it together while filming. It was amazing to see it and be there with him.”
Where do we go when faced with adversity? Is it a chance to create change, to discover strength within ourselves? Those are just some of the things that those who watch the “Hi, I’m” series are asked to reflect on.
“This is the best job,” Simpson says. “I’m so grateful I get to make this series and do it with Jeff.” Simpson and McQuitty have been friends since their days at UT where they bonded over their love of film and sketch comedy.
And while working with real people in lieu of non-scripted actors has provided its own set of unique challenges, they find it’s all about the intention you bring into each new project. Things don’t always go as planned, but that is just part of the job.
“You want to plan as much as you can, but you have to be flexible with how the story is told, and at the end, get to the core of the story,” McQuitty says. “There are lots of spreadsheets,” Simpson says on the planning of each “Hi, I’m” episode.
So what’s next? While they are currently not filming more episodes, they are looking for heartwarming stories to tell. “These stories are being told for a reason,” McQuitty says. “They are powerful and speak to the goodness of everyday people and the resilience of the human spirit. I hope people watch and are encouraged to go be better, be kind and give back to their communities,” he adds.
The “Hi, I’m” series is currently in its second season and has additionally shared the stories of Dawn Harper Nielsen, an Olympic track and field athlete who won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and silver at the 2012 London games, and Nancy Rubin, a Berkeley, California, teacher who had students write letters to their future selves, a multi-decade project before her retirement. To date, she’s sent 15,000 letters. “Hi, I’m” is available to watch on Magnolia Network, HBO and Amazon Prime.