- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2000

ASPEN, Colo. 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 the cover of 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 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 transformed her life. Within months, she and her husband, Joseph, had started the Foundation for Worldwide Mercy and Sharing, a charity dedicated to serving the children who make up 75 percent of Haiti's 8 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 cared for sick children stuck by their sores to hospital mattresses. She's spent days digging through the morgue for the bodies of dead children so she could give them a proper burial.
For her trouble, she's contracted lice, scabies and 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 has become a local legend, branded with the moniker "Mama Blanche" by the locals for her work with children, her fair skin and long, pale-blond 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," said 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.
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 per month.
"How does a Playmate become the mother of 1,600 children?" asks the 37-year-old Alabama native in her soft drawl. "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, Ala., she was sexually abused by a male relative and temporarily placed in a foster home at age 12. A few years later, the family moved to Salt Lake City, Susie left school and began working full time as a computer programmer.
Her relationship with her parents still was 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.
When Playboy called, Susie was initially horrified. "I said, 'No, no, no,' " she recalled. "Then they sent me two dozen yellow roses and a first-class ticket to L.A. Well, I wanted to go to L.A., but I didn't want to tell my parents, so I told them I was going camping."
She was just 17, but she lied about her age and became the first Playmate from Utah. She spent the next 10 years doing acting, modeling and promotional work for Playboy, enabling her to pay her bills, get her own place in Malibu and bring her younger brother, Mark, to live with her. But the experience also had its drawbacks.
"It was a blessing and a curse," said 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.
"None of that was Playboy's fault," she added. "Bless his heart, Hef personally made me go to therapy, and he paid for it."
A brief marriage brought her to Aspen, where she met Joseph Krabacher while shopping for a divorce lawyer. Mr. Krabacher had never handled a divorce, but he agreed to do hers, and they married shortly after it became final.
One night she was up late watching a program on the street children of Mongolia when 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,' " said Mrs. Krabacher. "Then a friend of mine from [First Baptist Church of Aspen] said, 'Why not Haiti? It's 10 times poorer than Mongolia, and it's right here in our back yard."
They began planning a trip to Port-au-Prince, and, instead of trying to talk her out of it, Mr. Krabacher was supportive.
"I thought it was a pretty good idea," he said. "I wasn't familiar with Haiti, except what I saw on TV. But I knew she always wanted to have an orphanage."
He might have changed his mind if he had known what she would do next. Mr. Dusseau says Mrs. Krabacher was immediately drawn to Cite Soleil, which he describes as "250,000 people living on a garbage dump."
The Krabachers began their work 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 also has taken over the operation and financing of four more orphanages and five schools.
When she started taking in orphans, government bureaucrats saw an opportunity to take advantage of the wealthy white woman, but their tactics backfired.
Initially suspicious of her work, the bureaucrats now bring her children they can't place elsewhere. Her facilities are filled with the chronically ill, the disabled, the mentally retarded.
"She literally takes the kids nobody else wants, the throwaway children left for dead," said foundation board member Tracy Chapman, who serves as the foundation's director of volunteers and medical services.
Next to Third-World giants like UNICEF, the Krabacher foundation is small: She's raised $1.1 million 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.
The foundation also has 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. At Mrs. Krabacher's behest, American Airlines has thrice shipped tons of food, diapers, shoes, socks and other supplies to Haiti.
And Mrs. Krabacher has big plans for the future. She recently opened two clinics and purchased 9* 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 to help them obtain jobs upon graduation.
She's started a Web site (www.haitichildren.com) and an e-mail address haitikids@aol.com.
"Haiti's problems won't be solved in my lifetime, but these kids are the future," said Mrs. Krabacher. "They can change the world."
This article is excerpted from a version that originally appeared in Philanthropy.

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