Illustration by Celia Fong.
Illustration by Celia Fong.

When Dr. Tracee Laing traveled to Haiti with suitcases full of medication, she wondered what to do with the empty luggage she’d be left with on her flight home. Her proximity to a community that produced beautiful, intricate metalwork inspired her to fill her suitcase with artwork by local Haitian artists and sell it back to her community in Granville, Ohio to buy more medication for her next trip. With that, Healing Art Missions (HAM) was born.

The nonprofit group, founded in 1999, came out of Laing’s realization that her previous week-long mission trips to Haiti didn’t substantially address the healthcare needs of the community. When she left, a line of mothers with sick children cried and begged her to help them. People diseased by dirty water anticipated care they couldn’t receive in the short time the missionaries were there.

“It was really heart-wrenching to go in and set up and then in the end when we had to leave there were always lots of people we couldn’t see,” Laing said. “It was clear the first time I visited that the way to tackle the health problems was to have a permanent clinic there that they could follow up at.”

Following her initial missions to Haiti, Laing decided to found her nonprofit group. HAM assists Haitian communities with health care, education and clean water projects. Its current projects include mobile medical clinics, a permanent medical clinic in Dumay, a primary school and an eye clinic.

HAM runs on donations from individuals and groups. Art auctions, like the one being held at the Museum of Art and History on Oct. 11, are also a small source of funding and way to increase awareness.

Laing and Paul Hammond — Liang’s business and life partner who she met on a trip to Haiti — follow the “partners in health” model, which offers resources to allow native Haitians to do the work of providing services themselves. Haitians are employed as doctors, teachers and other necessary positions while volunteers from the United States receive no pay. HAM’s motto is “help patients help themselves.”

“Our model is that they should have most of the ability except for some very difficult surgeries where they don’t have high tech equipment,” Hammond said.

HAM’s ideology set it apart from other nonprofits, particularly among those who rushed to the island to aid after the 2010 earthquake. Martha Mendoza, Santa Cruz resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was reporting in Haiti after the earthquake and noted that red tape often stood in the way of efficiency when it came to allocating funding to necessary areas like housing and emergency medical care.

“The nonprofits that had been there already, that were already established … and were Haitian-run seemed much better prepared to serve,” Mendoza said.

The multifaceted aspects of HAM’s projects and balance of practical experience and educational opportunity allows Haitian employees to feel part of the organization’s mission.

Jean Herard Charles, known as Charles by his friends, started as a translator for Laing before being employed as an eye technician for HAM’s clinic. Charles used his paycheck to fund a school in his town of Port-de-Paix since 2009. HAM paid the salaries of the teachers and made necessary structural changes to the building.

The educational aspect is an integral part of HAM’s mission.

“You have to look at the big picture of improving the community and society,” Laing said. “You can’t really have a democracy with 50 percent illiteracy.”

To Laing, education is the crux for improving the Haitian community, along with providing clean water to prevent disease and poor health. Although art shows are not a huge part of HAM’s funding, they serve as a way for volunteers to befriend Haitian artists and connect with that community. Art serves as a way to talk about the improvements HAM is trying to make in Haiti.

“The idea is that we use the art to draw people in because it’s a more accessible way to talk about Haiti,” said Liang’s business partner Hammond. “We’re a grassroots-funded organization and this is the way of expanding our base of supporters.”

HAM has board members and friends, as Laing calls them, across the United States. Santa Cruz is fertile soil for a nonprofit like HAM. Its value for art aside, the community is philanthropically engaged.

“People in Santa Cruz want to help,” said Santa Cruz resident and event host Martha Mendoza, “We are local, but we’re also very global. People are interested in the whole world around them.”

Mendoza added that Hammond’s longtime presence in the community helps. Hammond’s involvement with HAM encourages others to support the nonprofit.

Through outreach across the United States, HAM looks to expand services from dental care to more extensive surgical procedures. Laing and Hammond visit Haiti about every three months to ensure that everything is going smoothly, but their goal is to continue meeting the needs of the community by keeping on top of current projects, rather than creating new ones.

“We’re also trying to teach them how to run own business,” Hammond said. “Ultimately we want to put ourselves out of business.”

HAM will host an art auction downtown at the Museum of Art and History on Sunday, Oct. 11 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.