Susie Krabacher’s friends describe her as a candidate for sainthood, but that’s probably a stretch. After all, Mother Teresa never lied about her age so she could pose for Playboy. Mother Katharine Drexel was never Miss May. And Mother Cabrini never partied with Hef at the mansion.
What they did, of course, was devote their lives to doing the Lord’s work by living with and caring for impoverished children in the world’s most desperate slums. Just like, well, Susie Krabacher.
Six years ago, former Playboy centerfold Susan Scott Krabacher visited Haiti with a friend from church, and it changed her life. Within months, she and her husband Joseph had launched the Foundation for Worldwide Mercy and Sharing, a charity dedicated to serving the children who make up 75 percent of Haiti’s eight million-plus people.
She now spends four to six months each year living and working in Cite Soleil, known as the most hopeless of the Port-au-Prince slums. In that time, she’s taken in hundreds of starving children abandoned on street corners. She’s rocked babies as they died in her arms and nursed sick children stuck by their sores to hospital mattresses. She’s spent days digging through the morgue for the bodies of children so she could give them a proper burial.
For her trouble, she’s contracted lice, scabies, mange, and was treated for encephalitis. She’s been menaced by gangs, confronted by voodoo witch doctors, and shaken down by bureaucrats who wanted bribes to let her continue her work.
In the process, she’s become a local legend, dubbed “Mama Blanche” by the locals for her fair skin, and long, light-blonde hair.
“A lot of celebrities go in and they do great work, but they’re there for one or two days and they’re surrounded by bodyguards,” says Richard Dusseau, a longtime friend who first showed her the country in 1994. “To be surrounded by so much poverty, to watch people die on a daily basis, is incredibly draining. But it really doesn’t wear Susie down. It’s almost like it energizes her,” he said.
Mother of 1,600
That the glamorous wife of a wealthy man would willingly leave her pampered life to tend to sick and dying children under the worst possible conditions is amazing enough. What’s even more incredible is that she’s good at it: Her Aspen-based foundation now operates six schools, five orphanages, and a hospital ward for abandoned children. With a staff of 82, she feeds, clothes, educates and nurses 1,652 children on a shoestring budget of $13,500 a month.
Back at her mountainside home in Aspen—actor Kevin Costner is a neighbor—you’re more likely to find her on the phone raising money than preparing to hit the slopes at Snowmass. Curled up on her sofa on a cool spring evening, looking effortlessly terrific in drawstring pants and a tank top, the 36-year-old Alabama native describes in a soft Southern drawl her journey from the Playboy mansion to the streets of Port-au-Prince.
“How does a Playmate become the mother of 1,600 children?” she asks with a laugh. “Well, I always knew I wanted to be remembered for doing more than posing for Playboy. My epitaph will not be, ‘She was Miss May 1983.’”
The roots of her devotion to Haiti’s neglected children can be found in what she describes as her own “very rocky childhood.” Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, she was sexually abused by a male relative and temporarily placed in a foster home at age twelve. A few years later, the family moved to Salt Lake City, where Susie dropped out of school and began working full time as a computer programmer.
Her relationship with her parents was still strained when she and her brother and sister posed for a local photographer for a family picture. Afterward, the photographer asked Susie if she would pose for him in a bikini, and she agreed. He then sent the photos to Hugh Hefner.
Then Playboy called. She was just 17, but she lied about her age and became the first Playmate from Utah. She spent the next ten years doing acting, modeling, and promotional work for the magazine.
“It was a blessing and a curse,” says Susie. “I really was very content, but I think a lot of people with my background have low self-esteem. I was around beautiful women all the time and I became anorexic—I wound up in the hospital and I nearly killed myself.”
A brief marriage brought her to Aspen, where she met Joseph Krabacher while shopping for a divorce lawyer. Krabacher had never handled a divorce, but he agreed to do Susie’s, and they married shortly after it became final. Eager to prove herself in a new town, she opened an antiques shop and volunteered for local arts charities.
But her self-esteem took another beating as her store struggled.
“I was totally losing our life savings,” she remembers. “Joe was saying, ‘Just stay home, take care of me, you’re so good at that.’ But he’s a hard act to follow—he’s a very prominent man in this town and I’m this little country girl.”
Living on a Garbage Dump
She was making plans to open another shop when, up late one night worrying about her future, she watched a program on the street children of Mongolia. Something inside her clicked.
“I told Joe, ‘Why can’t I do something like that? I could sell all my antiques and go over and build orphanages,’” says Susie. “Then a friend of mine from [First Baptist Church of Aspen] said, ‘Why not Haiti? It’s ten times poorer than Mongolia and it’s right here in our backyard.’”
They began planning a trip to Port-au-Prince and, instead of trying to talk her out of it, Joseph Krabacher, 46, was supportive. “I thought it was a pretty good idea,” he says. “I wasn’t familiar with Haiti, except what I saw on TV. But I knew she always wanted to have an orphanage,” he says.
He might have changed his mind if he had known what she would do. Dusseau says Susie was immediately drawn to Cite Soleil, which he describes as “250,000 people living on a garbage dump.” She insisted on spending the night there.
“When she saw Cite Soleil, which is the bottom of the bottom, she said, ‘To truly understand what these people go through, I need to stay here,’ which is really unusual, especially for a woman alone, especially a white woman,” says Dusseau, a management consultant. “But she has no fear.”
Sleeping in a filthy hovel in Cite Soleil with a family of 17 was something Susie says she also had to do for herself. “My greatest fear in life was being without a home, because I had been there. Being around no one who cared for me,” she says. “That first night in Cite Soleil, I thought that, if I can spend one night here, then, if I lose everything, I could live here if I had to. I spent one night there and thought, ‘This is where I belong.’”
The next day, “I couldn’t even hug her, she smelled so bad,” said Dusseau. But Susie was filled with purpose. To buy time in Haiti after her visa expired, she threw away her passport. When she finally did return, she spent weeks in a state of culture shock, trying to figure out “which one was reality, Aspen or Haiti. What I found is that one multi-millionaire could save that country, and I’m living in this town of multi-millionaires.”
The Krabachers began by founding Mercy House, an orphanage for children ages newborn to 15. They soon added a school and nutritional center, where many of her young charges receive their only meal of the day; and the “abandoned children’s ward” at the General Hospital. The foundation has also taken over the operation and financing of four more orphanages and five schools, in each case at the request of the original founders.
When she started taking in orphans, government bureaucrats saw an opportunity to take advantage of the wealthy white woman, but their tactics backfired.
“Everyone wants a bribe,” she says. “When I first started taking in kids, they wanted $300 per child, which is two years’ salary in Haiti. So I said, ‘Look, I can’t afford that, so I’ll bring them all back tomorrow.’ They never called again.”
Initially suspicious of her work, the bureaucrats now bring her children that they can’t place elsewhere. Her facilities are filled with the chronically ill and the physically and developmentally disabled.
“She literally takes the kids nobody else wants, the throwaway children left for dead,” says foundation board member Tracy Chapman.
Next to Third World giants like UNICEF, the Krabacher Foundation is small: She’s raised $800,000 since she started, about half of that from her own pocket. But every penny goes directly to Haiti, while she and Joe cover the foundation’s administrative, publicity, and travel expenses.
“We do something similar to what the Gideon family has always done—we pay all our own overhead,” says Joe Krabacher. “The secretaries and lawyers in my office donate their time, and that way we can send 100 percent back to Haiti.”
At a time when charities are under fire for frittering away contributions on overhead, Susie’s penny-pinching ways are seen as refreshingly down-to-earth. That’s one of the features that attracted Chapman, a senior account executive at Adelphia Business Solutions in Washington, D.C., who serves as the foundation’s director of volunteers and medical services.
“People recognize right away that she gets a lot done,” says Chapman. “One hundred percent of everything goes to the kids. It’s not going to mailings, stamps, office space, whatever. My friend gave a donation to Feed the Children and they sent her a coffee mug. I told her, ‘That $5 a month you sent in probably paid for that mug.’”
The foundation has also struck deals for food and infant formula donations from firms like Del Monte and Ross-Abbott Laboratories, while textile giant Springs Industries has chipped in new pillows, blankets, and bedding. American Airlines has twice shipped tons of food, diapers, shoes, socks, and other supplies to Haiti, and plans another emergency shipment in June, right in the middle of the nation’s tumultuous presidential and parliamentary elections.
Susie finds that her celebrity has had its pluses and minuses. The Playboy connection inevitably raises doubts about her credibility. “I didn’t see it as an asset,” admits Chapman. “But then, I was a Hooters girl when I was in college, and it paid for two years of tuition. I think we’ve all done things when we were young that we might not have done later.”
At the same time, her status as a former Playmate has also drawn media attention that other Haiti charities simply can’t attract. She’s well known in Germany, thanks to two lengthy articles in Stern magazine. After they appeared, she received about $70,000 in donations from European contributors.
“There are a lot of people who are famous because they’re sex symbols, and sometimes that makes it easier to get attention for [their] causes. And we’ve learned that the more exposure we get, the more children we can take in,” says Susie.
“It’s not, ‘Here’s this old Playmate who wants to get her mug back on TV,” she says.
In March, an article on her work in People brought her to the attention of Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, who invited her to join the congressional delegation observing the Haitian elections as a distinguished guest.
“Susan Krabacher is an outstanding, compassionate individual,” said Mr. Conyers in a statement. “Her caring and commitment to Haitian children deserves commendation. It touches my heart to see how she has given of herself to help so many Haitian children.”
And Susie has big plans for the future. After receiving donations of medical supplies following the People article, she opened two clinics. She bought 9.5 acres of land with plans to open same-sex orphanages as her children start hitting their teen years. She’d like to provide uniforms for her schoolchildren, but so far the cost has proven prohibitive.
Ultimately, she wants to adopt out some of her orphans to families in the United States, but bureaucratic fees and paperwork are blocking the way. In the meantime, she’s negotiating with a U.S. manufacturer to build a plant in Haiti where her older children can learn skills and obtain full-time jobs upon graduation.
“I want to grow myself out of a job,” says Susie. “I teach the kids to be embarrassed about their poverty. I tell them, ‘Don’t ever think it’s okay, because I’ve given you every opportunity.’”
“Haiti’s problems won’t be solved in my lifetime, but these kids are the future,” she says. “They can change the world.”
Valerie Richardson is the Western correspondent for the Washington Times.