Childhood troubles lead woman to help in Haiti
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.
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. Joe admits the foundation has grown larger than he ever imagined. “Once you take the kids you can never turn back,” he said.
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.
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, along with 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.
Changing the world
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.
AT A GLANCE
More information on the Mercy and Sharing Foundation is available on the Web at http://www.haitichildren.org.