History of the Healing Arts Center

Healing Arts Center History

Note: A few of the founding members mentioned in this history are no longer with us in the world. Ian Van Gelder passed away in November of 2018; Marlene Dickey passed away in August of 2015, and Sandy Sanders and Michael Sky several years ago.


In her own words, Marlene Dickey was always “a person with good ideas.” So in the summer of 1987 when she learned that a portion of the farmhouse that would become the Healing Arts Center (HAC) was for rent, she became excited about the potential of opening a healing center there. The building has historical significance in its own right. One of the oldest buildings in Eastsound, the former farmhouse on North Beach Road probably housed the phone company at one point and may have been the first doctor’s office in town.

So Marlene agreed to rent half of the first floor of the house along with the converted garage we call the Annex. She and several friends worked on establishing it as a healing center and tried to get support for it, but its presence in the community was very low-key. After six months, it was clear that she needed more help and that she had to do something else to attract attention.

Marlene put up flyers around town, announcing a vision meeting at the Center, and on February 2, 1988, at least twelve people came. Ian Van Gelder, an acupuncturist, and Sandy Sanders, an enthusiastic proponent of alternative health care, were among them. Others who began to participate in the very beginning and are still members, but who were not necessarily at that first meeting, are Mary Jo Ahern, Carol Jo Enge, and Vibha Golem, all massage therapists.

In March 1988, a crucial second meeting was held. According to Ian, those who came to the meeting realized that they had to commit time and energy to running the center if it were going to survive. This initial group was responsible for establishing many of the core philosophies of the Healing Arts Center, and those ideas and beliefs have survived for twenty years. Thus, the Center was founded with the idea that it would be able to give something back to the community, that it would need the cooperation of all its members, that it would provide support and friendship for its members, and that it would be run with integrity, in a conscious and professional way.

The other factor which became clear from the start was that the HAC would need additional financial support. As a result, on April 16–17, 1988, the first Healing Arts Fair was held. The Fair, which has continued to be the Center’s primary fundraiser, allows members of the community a chance to receive treatments at a discounted rate. This popular event is still held twice a year.

That first Fair was organized by Kate Clark. Some time toward the end of 1988, she took the job of Executive Director, becoming responsible for setting up the organization and day-to-day operation of the Center. She maintained that position until December 1992, and remained a practitioner for a period of time after that.

In November 1988, Sandy Sanders became the first President of the Board, the only president who was not a practitioner. In those early days, Sandy was invaluable to the HAC, and she devoted herself tirelessly to insuring its success. She did everything from handling the finances of the Center (with the help of her husband Savvy), to buying massage tables for the treatment rooms, to making curtains for the windows. She even washed the sheets for the massage therapists in those early years.

When interviewed for this history, Sandy also pointed out how generous the Orcas community was in those early years. Many individuals stepped forward and either donated goods and services or traded healing sessions for them. After only a year, the Center became self-sufficient; with continued help from the Orcas community, it has been that way ever since.

For Sandy, the concept of professionalism was very important. It was her dream that the Healing Arts Center would be granted non-profit status, and she was the prime motivator for working toward that goal. In May of 1990, the Center received its 501(c)3 designation, largely due to Sandy’s efforts.

She stepped down as President in 1991, but remained very active until 1994, when she left to start a retail business on the Island. In 1996, she came back as a volunteer, and for years was one of the Center’s receptionists. According to Sandy, “When I came back after owning my own business, a paradigm shift had occurred. The Center had grown into a truly professional organization where the practitioners were running the entire operation. That fulfilled my original vision and hopes for it.” Sandy and her many years of support of the Center will be always be remembered with gratitude.

In the meantime, in June of 1991, Michael Sky became the President of the Board. One of the many contributions of this visionary leader (who passed away in 2011) was to bring in his strong belief in consensus;  some time during ’91 the Center began to operate as a consensus-based group, ensuring each member an equal voice. Community and cooperation remain very important factors in how the Center operates. Though it has grown from about twelve participants in 1992 to over twenty in 2010, and currently around 18, the spirit of harmony among the members is still just as strong.

The HAC was more firmly established by 1992, and has continued to grow slowly and organically from that time forth. Ian recalls that it has been necessary to put a moratorium on new membership from time to time so that the Center would not expand too quickly. He says, “It was important to manage the expansionary energy to find the center of gravity for the group. The community is the core of the Healing Arts Center. Within that there is the group of practitioners, with its own dynamic, energy and challenges.”

Because of this atmosphere of cohesiveness and solidity, in 1995 when it was learned that the farmhouse was up for sale, the members were ready to consider purchasing it. After negotiating a price, and because of a generous loan from a private donor, the HAC was able to purchase the building in December, 1995. There was a celebration to commemorate the event in January of 1996, and in February the first mortgage payment was made.

At that time, the HAC continued to occupy only half of the first floor and the Annex. The income from renting out the rest of the building was still necessary for the Center’s budget. However, just two years later, in 1998, plans were made to expand into the entire downstairs space and the existing floor plan was created. The renovation took about 18 months, and was done largely through the volunteer efforts of a team of practitioners headed by longstanding member Rick Doty. The new space was ready in 2000; and in 2003, the Center once again expanded to include the upstairs rooms. Since then, it has occupied the entire building.

When Michael Sky stepped down as President of the Board, Ian Van Gelder took over. After that Rick Doty had a stint as President, and the center was ably led by Jennifer Posada between 2005 and 2008. After that, Ian was once again elected to the leadership post, which he held until Mary Jo Ahern, who has practiced massage at the Center since 1991, took the helm in 2012. At our Annual Meeting in January 2016, Mary Jo passed the torch (actually, the agenda book) to VP Christopher Evans, in preparation for her departure for several months. There has been a remarkable sense of continuity at the Center over the past twenty-four years. There have been only seven presidents in all that time. Many of the original members are still on board, and many others have been around for almost the entire time. The loyalty and commitment of these practitioners is infectious, so that new members also join with the same interest in cooperation, and with the same desire to ensure the success of the Healing Arts Center within the Orcas community. As Ian has said, “The purpose of doing this healing work acts as the anchor for the Center.”

In honor of our past and to celebrate our 20th Anniversary, in July of 2007, we launched a Community Outreach Program which included a series of lectures and demonstrations, rearranging the lobby of the Center to include a library and a place to read and relax, and the opportunity to use the Center’s computer to research alternate healing modalities. We finally came into the new century with a website.

The Healing Arts Center Today

With some plateaus, there has been a continual growth curve since its humble beginning in 1988. Now having completed its 30th year, The Healing Arts Center is still growing in a vital, vibrant way. Ian’s comments in 2007 are still pertinent:  “Based on where we’ve gone so far, with the advantage of a twenty-year perspective, I can see how successful we’ve been. We can be proud of our evolution, especially from what it looked like in the beginning, and what its chances of survival were.”

The Center continues to reach out to the community from time to time for support to maintain the historic building that houses our practices, so that it can fulfill our mission of providing a workplace for those who wish to share their skills with our island community. We were given, in 2010, a grant from the Orcas Island Community Foundation, earmarked as seed money for the replacement of our roof. In August 2010 we launched a Raise the Roof Raffle to generate a substantial portion of the necessary funds, offering generous prizes of healing modalities to the fortunate winners. The new roof was installed by Paul Groeninger and crew in the summer of 2011. In August of 2013, we replaced our old front porch with a new deck, stairs, and a ramp that improved access and safety.

In 2014, we inaugurated the Spirit of Service program (SOS) which enables us to provide services at minimal cost to island residents served by a trio of local agencies. We continue to look for ways to fund and expand this needed program.

For the past few years we have been raising funds for a needed project to redo our foundation, make energy efficiency and other improvements to our building. In the late fall of 2018, we held a celebration of our 30th year providing care to the people of, and visitors to, Orcas Island.

We invite all of you to explore, discover, or revisit the Healing Arts Center. What Sandy Sanders said several years ago is, we trust, true for practitioners, receptionists, clients and community members: “Even today, I feel welcome and happy whenever I walk through the front door.” Experience the warmth and positive energy of the Healing Arts Center for yourself today!