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Compassion Beyond Compare

Susie Krabacher remembers looking in the mirror when she was a little girl ” distraught after being sexually abused once again ” and vowing to someday be in a position to help kids.

She suffered so much pain while growing up in Alabama that she’s always felt a special calling to help children survive tough times. For the last 10 years she’s paid off her childhood promise many times over, dedicating herself to helping kids trapped in conditions that are nearly incomprehensible to most Americans.

Krabacher co-founded the Mercy and Sharing Foundation in 1994 with her husband, Joe Krabacher, an attorney and successful businessman in Aspen. Their nonprofit foundation provides education, medical care, food and shelter for almost 2,000 abandoned, orphaned, terminally ill and otherwise needy kids in Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world.

Susie Krabacher has received national notoriety for her philanthropic endeavors. Many of the stories focus on how the former Playboy centerfold ventures through some of the grittiest and deadliest slums of Haiti on her goodwill missions.

Usually lost in the recounting is how Krabacher’s personal suffering as a child cemented her determination and will. Sexually abused by her maternal grandfather from age 4 to 8, she recalls swinging on a cattle gate as an 8-year-old, telling herself the abuse would never happen again.

It didn’t. But other family issues landed her in a foster home by age 12. Conditions there were even worse. A girl in the foster family was carrying the child of her own father, according to Krabacher.

School wasn’t a priority for Krabacher during childhood. Starting at 12, she lied about her age to get jobs. At 17, a friend sent photos of her in a swimsuit to Playboy magazine, and Krabacher was invited to Hugh Hefner’s famed mansion in California. She became a cover girl in March 1984 and continued as a model for several more years.

Krabacher landed in Aspen 15 years ago and hooked up with Joe when he handled her divorce from her first husband. Joe and Susie were married soon after they met, and they discovered a shared desire to do something meaningful with their lives.

Religion had been part of Susie’s childhood; she and Joe are members of Aspen’s First Baptist Church congregation. They aren’t caught up in dogma, pomp and ceremony. Instead they try to apply the Bible as they understand it.

Joe said he and Susie aren’t building points for entry to heaven. They’re doing it because it is God’s will, he said.

Life-changing experience

That application of the Bible indirectly led Susie to Haiti. With no children of her own, she was preparing to visit Mongolia and help children there when another member of the Aspen congregation implored her to visit Haiti with him. He convinced her it made little sense to help children in Asia when such poverty existed just 500 miles off the Florida coast.

Krabacher went to Haiti and was immediately hooked. “I can’t even tell you how deeply that changed me,” she said.

Her first work was in the abandoned-infant-care unit at the only public hospital in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where in fact “care” was a euphemism. Overwhelmed doctors and nurses had little time to do anything for the 200-or-so kids. The heads of some of the babies were actually growing around the iron bars in the cribs because the children hadn’t moved in so long, according to Krabacher. In some cases, live babies shared cribs with dead ones who hadn’t been removed.

“I wanted to help kids in pain. I had never seen so much pain,” Krabacher said.

She started visiting the infant-care unit every day, feeding the kids, applying bandages and medicine to their open wounds and simply holding them. After a month, hospital administrators ordered her to stop caring for the infants or move them elsewhere. They were used to the kids dying ” not living and consuming valuable space and resources.

“I was causing the kids to live, and they didn’t have any room for them,” Krabacher said.

It was the first of many gut-wrenching ironies she and her husband have faced in Haiti.

Susie called Joe in Aspen and explained the situation to him. He told her to find property for an orphanage. They would figure out how to pay for it later.

A foundation was born with a tremendous leap of faith.

“God doesn’t give you anything you’re not tough enough to handle,” Susie said.

No shortage of needy

The Krabachers purchased a $111,500 house in Port-au-Prince and moved 47 infants into it from the hospital. Susie hired a staff and discovered, on her return to Aspen, that Joe was already creating a nonprofit foundation to oversee the orphanage. He made his first trip to Haiti about a year later and understood why Susie felt compelled to act.

“There is so much need down there. It’s hard to focus your attention,” Joe said.

Through necessity and opportunity the Mercy and Sharing Foundation began to grow. The foundation contracted with the hospital to work with recently abandoned or orphaned infants. In many cases the infants are terminally ill. A separate orphanage, Mercy House Orphanage I, was created to handle their unique needs. Still another, Mercy House Orphanage II, was created for infants who overcame their medical conditions. The foundation’s largest school has about 850 children, though the schools typically number between 200 and 250 students. Numbers in the orphanages vary widely from month to month, with anywhere from 30 to 60 children at a given time.

The foundation has also started or taken over six schools that provide education up to the sixth grade. One of those schools provides hope for 100 students in Cite Soleil, one of the most depressed slums outside Port-au-Prince.

In addition to the finest education in Haiti, the students at all schools receive one meal per day and clean water ” virtual luxuries in Haiti. Mercy and Sharing Foundation provides books and uniforms, although students can no longer wear their uniforms home because parents will often sell the clothing to raise cash.

Joe admits the foundation has grown larger than he ever imagined. “Once you take the kids you can never turn back,” he said.

And he remains confident it will continue to flourish. “If God is with you, who can be against you?” he asked.

The foundation’s annual operating budget is about $320,000. The Krabachers provide about one-third of that amount from their own pockets. Susie devotes her time in the United States to raising funds and supplies.

To keep the operating budget under control, many goods must be donated. For example, the foundation goes through 6,000 diapers each month, the cost of which would be prohibitive. So Susie works with companies to get them donated.

Joe noted that the funds raised by the foundation stretch a long way in impoverished Haiti. Land prices are surprisingly high, but construction is cheap and wages are low. The foundation’s first school cost $14,000 to build, he said.

All cash contributions to Mercy and Sharing go directly to the children. All administrative costs are paid by the Krabachers, Susie said, which makes the foundation unique. Kids from the orphanages are put up for adoption, but the foundation doesn’t profit from the adoptions.

There are 152 Haitian teachers, doctors, nurses, administrators and others working at the foundation’s nine orphanages and schools. Only natives are hired. The jobs are coveted, Susie said, because they include health-care benefits.

Not a glamor cause

Celebrity status and beauty opens doors for 40-year-old Susie Krabacher, but raising funds for the foundation isn’t easy.

Initially, Krabacher said, wealthy potential donors would meet with her because, knowing she was a former Playboy model, they wanted to give her “the good ol’ head-to-toe” look. More often than not, those meetings didn’t yield contributions. None of the contacts she made in the Playboy mansion, including Hefner, has helped.

“The celebrity gifts have not come at all, at least partially because Haiti is black children in a country where people are known for killing each other,” she said.

She recalled pulling at the heart strings of a group in Aspen with a presentation that showed the plight of children in Haiti. A well-known local man (who she refused to name) followed her presentation, urging the group to help him provide golf clubs for disadvantaged local youth. The group contributed to the golf project, Krabacher said.

She can only laugh at the story now.

After more than a decade of hard work, tangible results and favorable coverage in publications from the Wall Street Journal to People magazine, the foundation is gaining clout and funding.

“People have come to not focus so much on the fact that I was a centerfold for Playboy,” Krabacher said.

The small contributions the organization receives are as meaningful to the Krabachers as the big gifts. A local child told Susie recently that her mom cleaned an extra house so she could donate to the Mercy and Sharing Foundation.

While the Krabachers keep seeking a deep-pocketed individual or organization to help start an endowment fund, they have also launched a new fund-raising effort to appeal to people of any means. Donors can pay for all the needs of a Haitian child for $50 per month in the Guardian Angel program.

She works the trenches

What makes Susie Krabacher unique among philanthropists is her willingness to work the trenches for her cause. While she spends her time in the United States shmoozing potential donors and giving speeches to focus attention on the plight of Haiti’s children, she also regularly visits the infant-care unit at the hospital in Port-au-Prince, holding the deformed, retarded, malnourished and terminally ill kids.

Initially she wore a mask and rubber gloves at the hospital, but realized it scared the infants, who crave human contact.

“I will not touch those kids with gloves any more. It breaks their hearts. It kills them,” she said.

With her fair skin and long, blonde hair, Krabacher cannot help standing out in Haiti. But she’s just as comfortable traveling the streets of Cite Soleil as she is hosting an Aspen cocktail party. She used to visit Haiti every month; after 10 years with the foundation, she still spends a couple of weeks there every other month.

Trying circumstances

Working in Haiti is far from a Caribbean pleasure cruise. Krabacher’s life has been threatened on several occasions, most recently in February when rebels were preparing to oust President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

As the country slid toward possible civil war, the foundation’s Haitian director, Stanley Joseph, reported to the Krabachers that one of their campuses had been surrounded the night before by men with automatic weapons and stockings over their heads. They threatened to kill the children if the land wasn’t turned over to them.

Susie booked a flight and immediately flew to Haiti despite a U.S. State Department advisory against travel. In a recent speech to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Krabacher described how she, the foundation’s volunteer U.S. director, Kathleen Carlson, and Joseph were stopped at a barricade.

“I opened the passenger door and started to step down from the truck when one of the men pointed the gun at my chest while another put a gun to the window of the back seat where two of our staff sat,” Krabacher told the Press Club in a speech broadcast on CSPAN. “A man who appeared to be the leader ordered the men to shoot. Mr. Joseph, with his hands in the air, began shouting back that we take care of the Haitian children while I was shouting, with my hands above my head, that we respect them and only want to go to our orphanages.”

Joseph eventually convinced the armed men to let them pass. “To this day I do not know why they let us go,” Krabacher said.

And that’s only the most recent confrontation. The Aristide government was extremely corrupt, both Krabachers agree. High-ranking government officials have tried to extract bribes by threatening not to renew operating licenses for the orphanages.

Local gang leaders have also tried to extract money from the foundation. But Krabacher said she’s earned their respect and trust. Parents know she is helping kids, so they pressure the gangs to leave her alone.

“I have a reputation ” never, even if you put a gun to my head ” will I pay you a bribe,” she said.

Joe trusts Susie’s knowledge of Haiti and the respect she’s earned among locals to survive during times like the ousting of Aristide. Joe knows he couldn’t have stopped her from going to Haiti once she heard the kids in the orphanage had been terrorized.

“She is a relentless advocate for the children,” he said.

Conditions in Haiti have stabilized since early March, when Aristide fled, and an interim government was created and peacekeepers including U.S. Marines came to the country. Both Krabachers feel Haiti’s prospects are significantly brighter under a new government.

The foundation’s highest priority was to restock supplies after Aristide loyalists raided a warehouse and stole food, diapers and supplies. A donation from the Houston-based Medical Bridges organization will provide the Mercy and Sharing Foundation with two 40-foot containers of rice and beans.

The Krabachers’ current project is to establish a clinic to support pregnant women and their unborn children. The first orphanage established by the foundation is no longer large enough to care for all the kids, so it’s being transformed into the prenatal clinic. If all goes as planned, it will open in June.

Susie said it marks a step in a new direction for the foundation ” preventing birth defects and problems rather than addressing their results. The clinic will also offer family-planning advice.

One massive problem in Haiti is babies born with a lack of folic acid. In the United States the problem is easily solved, according to Krabacher, but in Haiti it goes untreated and leads to horrendous deformities. The ill health of the mothers also leads to problems like retardation.

“In the beginning, if I had known this was such a huge problem, it would have been my focus,” she said.

Rotary International has given the foundation $30,000 to buy rehabilitated medical equipment that will be used in the clinic. The Krabachers are raising the $60,000 needed for annual operating expenses.

There is virtually no end to the list of projects the Krabachers want to tackle in Haiti. The more success they have, the more they seek to do.

“It is not impossible in any way, shape or form to change the world,” Susie said.

More on the Mercy and Sharing Foundation is available on the Web at http://www.haitichildren.org.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.


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