In 1992, a C-5 Galaxy U.S. Air Force transport plane lifted off from Johnson County Industrial Airport carrying 75 tons of medical supplies destined for the heart of Russia.
The largest private humanitarian airlift up to that time, the airlift delivered much needed supplies to the people of Moscow whose medical infrastructure was depleted. It also was marked the origin of Heart to Heart International, which is headquartered in Lenexa.
During the more than quarter-century since, Heart to Heart has provided medical aid, disaster relief, and other humanitarian services in more than 130 countries. Thousands of volunteers — including medical professionals, logistics experts, donors, and other partners — have logged more than 1 million volunteer hours and delivered more than $1.5 billion in aid.
Much of Heart to Heart’s growth has been the result of their mission to serve beyond an immediate crisis response. Often, long-term projects are launched by Heart to Heart volunteers, who see a need exposed by or in the midst of disaster.
“Wherever we go, we keep our eyes out for issues that need to be worked on, so once the immediate crisis is over we may stay a long time,” Heart to Heart International’s CEO Jim Mitchum said.
While serving during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Heart to Heart medical teams recognized a lack of good laboratory capability and, in response, built laboratories and trained Haitian people in their use.
“There was so much need in Haiti, we didn’t leave,” Mitchum said. “But instead of creating dependence, we strove to make the people more independent.”
In Haiti, this independence evolved into a partnership and today the island’s Heart to Heart medical teams are Haitian-led. The organization’s support efforts during Hurricane Maria were headed by a bilingual Haitian team, which treated more than 2,600 Puerto Rican patients in a little more than two months.
Heart to Heart initiatives and education also have fostered independence in a number of other countries.
In Liberia, Heart to Heart volunteers served nine months during the Liberian Ebola epidemic. The 130-member team not only provided patient care, but they also trained administrators and teachers in safe hygiene practices.
While conducting lab training in Papua New Guinea during the past several years, the Heart to Heart group was asked by a local hospital and the Ministry of Health if they could provide midwifery training for the island’s residents. Heart to Heart obliged by developing training materials and recruiting volunteers who will soon be traveling to train midwives across the island nation.
“One of the more interesting aspects of who we are is that we’re not affiliated with any single faith,” Mitchum said. “We respect the religions of all people. Our ability to work across organizations and religions has given us a real opportunity, and these faith connections help us reach people more quickly.”
In line with their mission, Heart to Heart continually provides aid in humanitarian crises. Since 2016, they have shipped multiple aid containers to Syrian refugees living in Greece, Serbia and Turkey. Plans for the near future include delivering containers directly to Syria.
Although the scope of Heart to Heart’s work is international, the organization recently has turned its attention closer to home, hoping to address the lack of adequate healthc are in regional rural communities, specifically the Missouri bootheel. The organization’s mobile medical unit conducts clinics for hundreds of uninsured patients living in this area.
Heart to Heart volunteers Cynthia and Bill Kelley volunteered together for the rural health initiative in 2016. Bill also has made 15 trips to serve in Haiti, while Cynthia has made numerous overseas trips to establish medical labs and conduct workshops for laboratory personnel.
But the need they saw right here in the United States also had a profound impact on them.
“We knew of the extreme poverty in Haiti but were unaware of the living conditions in parts of rural America,” Bill said. “We came away from that experience with a renewed commitment as volunteers.”
This year, Cynthia will oversee the installation of new, grant-funded laboratories and train staff in free clinics throughout the United States. The couple also will travel to Jamaica and Haiti for additional laboratory projects and other Heart to Heart initiatives.
As an organization, Heart to Heart numerous goals, both short- and long-term, include growth on a number of fronts.
Currently, they are expanding their product sourcing, while also increasing volunteer opportunities. As a result, the group’s Lenexa facilities are near capacity and the search for a larger space is in the works.
New financial goals are also on the table.
“Our vision for the future is that 100 percent of our donations will go directly toward disasters or crises,” Mitchum said. “Currently, less than 2 percent of donations goes toward overhead and administrative costs, but we want that to be zero.”
In order to meet those goals, Heart to Heart has created a business, PowrServ. Initially developed by Dr. Gary Morsch, one of Heart to Heart’s founders, PowrServ offers philanthropic team-building events for companies and organizations.
During the hands-on events, participants assemble standardized hygiene kits, which HHI then ships to disaster or crisis areas. The charitable events give employees or members of organizations opportunities to be involved and personally contribute to disaster relief efforts.
Heart to Heart will celebrate its silver anniversary with a 25th anniversary Gala on April 14. The sold-out event will recognize volunteers and donors who have contributed to the organization’s outreach throughout the years.