Cité Soleil, Haiti is nothing like Aspen, Colorado. The first is a 25-square-mile (40 km²) slum in Haiti, where mounds of garbage surround the tiny tin homes that house thousands of people fighting poverty. The latter is an upscale mountain town filled with humongous homes and fashion-conscious residents. Yet these two locations, so very different, are the places that Joe and Susie Krabacher call home.
Joe, 50, is an Aspen attorney, while 40-year-old Susie is a former model. They both share an intense passion for the children of Haiti – and they put that devotion into action. The couple’s non-profit organization, the Mercy and Sharing Foundation, cares for almost 2,000 children at six schools and three orphanages in Haiti.
It has not been easy work. The recent 2004 coup filled the country with fear and civil unrest. As gunmen roamed the streets and international soldiers landed in the city, most foreigners rushed to flee the country. Not Susie Krabacher. She ignored U.S. government travel warnings and flew directly from Colorado to Port au Prince.
“Any other mother who was in her right frame of mind would go and make sure her kids were safe,” says Susie. “Just because I care for so many children, doesn’t mean I don’t love each of them and want to care for them.”
The Colorado woman was devastated to find that the foundation’s warehouses had been raided and everything stolen.
“The Chimere, a faction of armed civilian thugs, came with automatic weapons and surrounded our guards at the warehouses,” Susie says grimly. “They took everything we had – tens of thousands of diapers, beans, milk and rice. They even came to the orphanages with guns. Our people couldn’t do anything to stop them.”
The children had to stand by and watch as well. “This kind of thing isn’t new to them,” says Susie. “Gunfire is frequent, and has been for most of their lives. The kids just kept asking, ‘Why are they taking our stuff?’”
Over US$ 7,000 in food and supplies were gone. But there was no time for crying. Susie got busy right away, buying rice on the black market to feed the children at her orphanage.
With her waist-length blond hair and fashionable clothes, this former model is an unlikely guardian for these children that the world often ignores. Yet she is just as comfortable working in the slums of Cité Soleil, where she travels every other month, as she is socializing with millionaires and celebrities in Aspen.
Living conditions in Cité Soleil are appalling. Flies are everywhere, and there are times when the stench of garbage is overwhelming. Children play in the dirty river that winds through the slum, their protruding bellies showing signs of malnutrition. With a national unemployment rate of over 60%, starvation is a daily reality.
“In the U.S., we have poverty, but there is always some way to get help,” Susie says. “Here in Haiti, there isn’t. There are children on the brink of dying – and who do die of starvation.”
The island is a dangerous place to be, especially for an outsider. Susie must travel with an armed guard, and she has been harassed, followed and menaced on numerous occasions. She has even been threatened with arrest by corrupt officials who want a bribe. But the Aspen woman is not easily stopped. Since 1995, she has poured her heart into the island, and made the abandoned children of Haiti her own.
“These are the kids I never imagined I’d have,” says Susie. “I understand their pain all too well.”
Reared in Alabama, Susan had a painful childhood and was in foster care by age 12. She set off on her own at 16, struggling to make ends meet by working as a restaurant hostess and an office receptionist. A year later, a friend sent a picture of Susie to Playboy Magazine. “I was a Playboy cover girl at 20 (Miss May 1983),” Susie recalls. “I spent the next several years at the Playboy mansion, mixing with celebrities.”
But by age 25, Susie found her fast-paced lifestyle unfulfilling. She began looking for something different out of life.
Then she met Aspen attorney Joseph Krabacher. Initially, Susie told a friend that she felt sorry for Joe. “I thought he was so tall that he was most likely never kissed,” she recalls, laughing.
All that changed when the pair married in 1988. In Joe, Susie found the love of her life and a partner in her dreams and hopes. Their shared Christian faith became a huge part of their lives.
“Joe convinced me that I had a lot more to offer than just a pretty face,” she says.
The Krabachers set up a good life in Aspen, and Susie opened an antique shop and invested in a restaurant. Then in 1994, Susie saw a TV documentary on Mongolian orphans living in sewers and eating rats. “I understood that feeling of hopelessness that was on their faces,” she says. Compelled to help, she called several relief agencies to offer her assistance.
“They were all willing to take my money,” Susie says. “But none would let me help personally. Finally I just bought a plane ticket to Mongolia and was ready to go,” she says.
Then a friend from her church stopped her. “My friend asked why I would fly all the way to Mongolia when one of the world’s poorest nations was just 500 miles (804 km) from our (American) southeastern coast,” Susie says.
Two weeks later she and her friend were on a plane to the country that would become part of Susie’s life. “I was appalled by what I saw in Haiti,” she recalls.
“There was garbage on the street, open sewers and rats the size of Chihuahuas.”
But even more devastating were the hundreds of abandoned children she saw. “I picked up one baby at a hospital and she screamed,” Susie says. “I realized that she had lain in the crib so long that her skin had bonded to the mattress and torn off when I picked her up.”
Susie saw other children abandoned in the streets; those who were disabled were often left to die. It was a world the former model had never imagined – and one where she was not welcome.
Several villagers threw rocks and hurled insults at Susie during that first trip. “I called out to them not to hurt me, and that I just wanted to help,” she says, “but they didn’t understand me.” Running to escape injury, the former model made a vow. “Though I had originally thought I would come down to sponsor a child, I knew I had to do more than that. I swore to be there for the children of Haiti. I just couldn’t walk away.”
Several locals had voiced their great need of a school and clinic in Cité Soleil, so Susie called Joe back in Colorado and asked him to close the antique store and sell their restaurant shares to raise the money to start such a school.
Schoolchildren sing with Susie Krabacher at one of the schools started by the Mercy and Sharing Foundation, a non-profit organization that Krabacher founded.
Joe was very supportive of his wife’s idea and passion. “The man I married is the only man I could have done this with,” Susie says. “He works with me at every step.”
Susie then flew back to Colorado, where the couple continued their fund-raising efforts. A few weeks later, Susie returned to Haiti to watch the construction of a school and clinic in the slum neighborhood she had visited. Little by little, the locals began to trust her. They began to call her, “The White Mama.”
Teachers were hired for the school, and now each day more than 100 students cram into three tiny rooms at the school. The walls are painted green, with pink flowers. There is no electricity or water and the heat is stifling. Yet the students seem happy to be there. In addition to an education, the school provides, for many, their only meal of the day.
Wanting to continue their efforts, Susie and Joe co-founded the Foundation for Worldwide Mercy and Sharing in 1995. The couple is constantly involved in the relentless fundraising that their work in Haiti requires. Joe does most of the “back-office” work for the foundation back in Colorado, while Susie does the work on the ground in Haiti. Recently, the Haitian government made Susie an honorary citizen.
Hundreds of lives have been saved due to the Krabacher’s efforts. As a wedding anniversary gift to each other one year, Joe and Susie paid for an operation for one of their “kids.” They are continually searching for ways to improve the lives of the children they touch.
“Joe and I started the Foundation not as a means of providing charity, but opportunity,” says Susie. “We want to give the forgotten children of Haiti a chance to thrive and become the savors of their own country. Our goal is to empower them with education and love so they can pass it on.”
The couple has decided not to have children of their own. They believe that these young Haitian children are the ones God gave them to love. “I couldn’t love a child from my own body any more than I love those kids,” Susie says.
For More Information
The Mercy and Sharing Foundation
201 N. Mill Street, Suite 201
Aspen, CO 81611