How Art and “Miss Gail” Help Support Haitian Kids Receiving Medical Care

When Haitian children come to the U.S. for medical attention, they don’t just see the doctor.
Children at the mission and orphanage in Port-au-Prince sport the T-shirts they made with Gail Rosenbloom Kaplan. // Photograph courtesy of Have Faith Haiti Mission & Orphanage

There is a room in artist Gail Rosenbloom Kaplan’s house in Farmington that has, at least for one group of children, become famous.

It is full of tables and aluminum trays brimming with all colors of sand, shelves of paint brushes, art supplies, and T-shirts designed by the young artists who visit there every time they come from Haiti for a hospital visit.

“It makes me happy every time I do it,” says Knox Appelos Joasil, an 11-year-old who was visiting Kaplan — Miss Gail to him — late last year. Like the other children who visit Kaplan, he lives at the Have Faith Haiti Mission & Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which Detroit Free Press columnist and author Mitch Albom founded following an earthquake that devastated the country in 2010.

When kids like Knox need medical attention, Albom brings them stateside for treatment at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, Beaumont Hospital, or Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, depending on their needs. In addition to seeing doctors, they also get to see Miss Gail.

It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also part of the healing process.

A 2018 study shows that children engaging in artwork during hospital stays had lower heart rates and stress levels compared to a control group.

“Giving these children an opportunity to express themselves through art clearly has a therapeutic effect physiologically and can become part of the healing process,” the authors of the study concluded.

But Kaplan could have told you that.

In addition to being an accomplished artist herself (her specialities include clay, mosaics, and mixed media, and her art has been displayed in embassies in Norway, Barbados, and Brazil) she’s been working with youth in hospitals and other organizations for more than 10 years and has seen what it can do for kids herself.

Since 2019, she has been involved in Albom’s efforts to help children from Haiti. Knox has a disability that affects some of his gross and fine motor skills, and when Kaplan first met him, he had a difficult time holding onto things and climbing the stairs to get to her studio.

Now, she says, “He can go up and down the stairs probably faster than me. Look at what he’s doing now with his skill,” she says, gesturing to the boy who is on the other side of the room doing sand art — sticking colored sand to paper to make different patterns and images, a specialty of Kaplan’s. “He could not hold a safety pin the first time I met him,” she says. “[Now] he can help the other kids. And so, his confidence, even though he has this disability, is at the top of the scale.”

The first time Albom heard of Kaplan was about four years ago at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. He and his team had brought a Haitian child to the hospital who had a lung infection and a hole in his esophagus, making it impossible for him to eat or drink. No one knew where his parents were — or even who they were. The boy spent a month at the hospital, and during that time, he got to meet Kaplan, who was there doing art projects with other children.

“It was the only thing he looked forward to,” Albom says. “I was so impressed not only with her kindness but with the quality of her work.” When the boy went home, Kaplan told Albom, “If he has to come back, he can come to my house.”

As time went on, Albom and Kaplan developed a partnership, with her becoming a part of the children’s experience when they’re in the U.S. for treatment. “Let’s go to Miss Gail’s! Let’s go to Miss Gail’s!” became a constant refrain, Albom says. And when those children returned to Haiti holding art projects or wearing the T-shirts they’d painted, she became something of a legend.

Eventually, it seemed there was only one thing left to do — Miss Gail needed to go to Haiti.

She went last September as the organization’s artist-in-residence, and all the kids at the orphanage finally got to meet Miss Gail.

They created their own projects and T-shirts and collectively worked on a three- piece mosaic that is 7 feet wide and half as tall. Kaplan designed it to include imagery of the children’s dormitory, the pool, the gardens, and the gazebo where kids and staff like to hang out.

“It told the whole story of our orphanage,” Albom says. “It’s just beautiful.”

In addition to making T-shirts for themselves, they also made shirts for their nannies and chef.

“They don’t have money, and they don’t have things, but these kids were able to make their nannies presents,” Kaplan says. “It was just wonderful to see, through the art, … how they wanted to include everybody in getting something.”

With so many kids working on a project together, you might think it was a room of chaos, but Albom says it was just the opposite.

“You’d walk in and they were just quiet,” he says. “She’s a bit of a therapist.”

Eight children from the orphanage now attend college in the U.S., and they still make time to visit Miss Gail. It also looks like she has more travel in her future as well. The Have Faith mission recently opened a new facility in Port-au-Prince — one, Kaplan says, that does not have any art on the wall.

At least, not yet.

This story is part of a three-part series in our 2023 Health Guide. Read more in our Digital Edition and don’t miss the other two parts: How Art Displays Help Cancer Patients and The Benefits of Movement Therapy