This is part 1 of 4 in a series about Heart to Heart International, a non-profit organization that seeks to strengthen communities through improving health access and providing humanitarian development and crisis relief worldwide.
Twenty-four years ago, Dr. Gary Morsch, the founder of Heart to Heart International, toured a number of medical facilities while visiting Russia and noticed that, although a number of doctors were there, they had none of the equipment or supplies they needed to practice medicine efficiently. Disturbed by this fact, he brought the problem before his rotary club in Kansas the next time they met and challenged them to collect supplies for Russia.
Over the next few months, his group collected 75 tons of products to send.
But this presented a problem, because Dr. Morsch had no idea how to get those supplies from the U.S. to Russia. He decided to go to Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum, the Kansas senators at the time, to ask for help, and Bob Dole agreed to provide a plane.
The plane was loaded with supplies at the New Century AirCenter Airport in Gardner, KS and flew from the heart of America to the heart of Russia in Moscow. The project was such a success that the state department asked Dr. Morsch and his crew of volunteers to do the same thing again, and Heart to Heart International was born. Since then, the organization has flown medical supplies to over 60 countries and has also worked to provide relief care and sustainability training after disasters such as the Haiti earthquakes; Joplin, MO tornados; and Superstorm Sandy.
Steve Hower was familiar with Heart to Heart from the beginning. While helping start the YMCA in Olathe, KS, he met Gary Morsch, who was one of the YMCA board members. For several years, the two organizations shared office space, and Steve often heard about what Heart to Heart was up to through Dr. Morsch. Then after 9/11, Steve and his wife took a week off work to “volunteer their time” in New York City to help Heart to Heart distribute needed relief supplies.
“I hadn’t traveled much at all outside of Kansas,” he said. “Heart to Heart had a great reputation in Kansas, but to be in New York and hear all the comments and talk about Heart to Heart and what a great reputation they had there was amazing. That’s when I decided I wanted to work at Heart to Heart.”
Steve had been involved in a number of mission trips in the past, and his wife went to Mexico every year on mission trips, so helping others in foreign contexts was already a cause close to his heart. He and his wife made plans to go to Uzbekistan as volunteers with Heart to Heart in the fall of 2002.
But before they went, Greater United Way and Prudential Life Insurance formed a partnership to bring new clothing for the underserved to Kansas City, and they chose Heart to Heart to be the distribution arm for them. Heart to Heart, in turn, hired Steve to manage that program, since he was working in retail at the time.
“I took a cut in pay, but it was well worth it. It’s so much nicer to wake up every morning and want to go to work,” he said.
Today, Steve has worked at Heart to Heart for 13 years and serves as the Director of Corporate Relations. As the liaison between the pharmaceutical and medical supply companies who provide product and finances to Heart to Heart, he doesn’t often get to be on the front lines, watching relief work be done, but he still loves the chances he has to go to countries he never would have chosen as vacation spots.
During those times, he has enjoyed witnessing Heart to Heart’s unique use of volunteers.
“We’ve worked with other NGOs on those trips, and they don’t do volunteers like we do volunteers,” he said.
On one trip to the Republic of Georgia, two local project managers joined the Heart to Heart volunteers for their nightly debriefing. By the end of the night, both were crying as they shared how working with Heart to Heart that week had changed their lives. As a result, one of them later began working with another non-profit.
“We’ve always had a great reputation [for being collaborative],” Steve commented. “We don’t care where you volunteer, but go do something you’re passionate about that will help people.”
On a different trip, Steve went to Haiti and had the opportunity to observe more of the front lines work than he usually is able to. This particular time, he watched as people from multiple backgrounds and religions came, many of them walking for hours, to meet together in a federation to make collective decisions about the future of their community.
The decision had been made that a medical clinic was needed in this particular area, but there was still some debate about where it should be located.
Then a local pastor and his wife—a couple with half a dozen children—stepped forward and volunteered their land to be used for the clinic.
“That’s their children’s inheritance,” Steve emphasized. “They have given up a portion of their children’s inheritance to locate a clinic on their property. That decision just jumped out at me.”
Steve loves being part of an organization that empowers people and provides training so that they may live more stable lives.
“For the most part, crisis response is reactionary and is about taking care of immediate needs. But for us the sustainability concept just continues to grow and morph within our organization. That’s what I’m passionate about—that we’re teaching a man to fish instead of just giving him a fish.”