Mission of Hope

updated 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

Susan Krabacher expected to find poverty when she left her luxurious Aspen home to visit Haiti in 1994. But nothing prepared her for the abandoned-children's ward at the state-run hospital in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. "I walked in and saw probably 100 little cribs with dying children in them," she says. When she noticed that her surgical mask seemed to frighten the infants, she took it off and held the diseased babies, kissed them and let them climb on her lap and play with her waist-length blonde hair. "I said, 'I'm not going to scare these kids,' " she recalls. "I'm here to help them."

Help them she has. Not long after that first trip, Krabacher, 36, established the Foundation for Worldwide Mercy and Sharing, which funds orphanages, clinics, schools and hospital wards for the neediest children of Haiti, a desperately poor country that plunged even more deeply into political and economic chaos after a 1991 military coup. Along the way, she has battled gangs who have beaten her guards, stolen her equipment and held guns to her head; defied reluctant nurses accustomed to leaving disabled children for dead; and overcome the effects of a hurricane that ripped the roof off one of her schools—all for the children. "I can never imagine myself without them," she says. "I can stop their tears in a second just by walking up. You can't buy that."

Most people don't bother to try. In fact, the sweltering slums of Haiti provide the grimmest of contrasts to Aspen, where Krabacher lives with her husband, Joe, 46, an attorney who also manages a lucrative telecommunications business. And they are even further removed from the hedonistic world of Hugh Hefner's Playboy, which featured Krabacher—a model for 16 years—on its cover in March 1984. "There is more to her than what you see in pictures," says Hefner. Her efforts haven't gone unnoticed by Haiti's government either. Says Nadia Francois, a Ministry of Social Affairs worker: "She has given life and comfort to a lot of kids who would otherwise be left, perhaps to die."

Krabacher's character was tested and forged early on. Born in San Diego and reared in Athens, Ala., Krabacher was the second of four children of Frank Scott, now 68, a retired quality-control engineer, and his wife, Betty, 56, a retired marketing manager for McDonald's. At age 8, according to both Krabacher and her mother, she was molested by her maternal grandfather, and Betty subsequently sank into a depression. Krabacher's relationship with Betty—then a strict member of the Church of Christ—declined, and at age 12 she went into foster care. "I couldn't wear jewelry, paint my nails or wear makeup," says Krabacher. "The only exposure I had was Jesus." She rejoined her parents in 1978 when the family moved to Salt Lake City.

Her troubles were hardly over. She was disowned by her parents when she let a friend send pictures of her in a bathing suit to Playboy. "Hef loved them, I guess," she says. Within weeks, Krabacher—17 but claiming to be older—found herself at Hefner's home in L.A. "They picked me up in a limo, took me straight to the mansion, and I hid in my room for three days," she says. "I was terrified. I thought I was going to see orgies." Instead she made friends with the other models and ultimately joined the wild nightly circus at Hef's place, where she lived on and off for about a year while modeling for the magazine. In 1984 an ill-fated first marriage took her to Aspen, where she subsequently sought a divorce. At that point fate played its hand: The divorce lawyer recommended to her was Joe Krabacher.

The pair wed in 1988, and she opened up an antiques shop with money from her husband. But by October 1994 the business was faltering, and she felt depressed and rudderless. "I was feeling like a failure, like I had really let my husband down," she says. It was around that time that a TV documentary about orphans in Mongolia inspired her to try to make a difference. But while all the relief organizations she called were happy to accept her money, they rejected her offers to lend a hand. "They said, 'You're not qualified,' " she recalls. "So finally I said, 'Nuts. I'll go do it myself.' "

That's when Richard Dusseau, a friend from her church, the First Baptist, persuaded her to join him on a trip to Haiti. He assured her that she would see worse poverty there than even in Mongolia. After visiting the sick-children's ward in Port-au-Prince, Krabacher literally threw away her passport, knowing that the process involved in getting a new one would take long enough for her to set her aid efforts in motion. "I thought she would go down and write a check, hold a few babies and hit the road," says Dusseau, a Denver management consultant. "I had no idea she'd go at it with such a vengeance."

Dusseau introduced her to the manager of a foundation that needed $13,000 to finish a clinic for children in Cite Soleil, a dangerous slum in the capital. "I said, T can do that tomorrow because I have enough furniture in my antique store to make twice that,' " Krabacher recalls. But her offer was met with suspicion. "At the beginning everyone was a little skeptical," explains Leslie Maximilien, a local businessman who now helps oversee Krabacher's projects. She soon put their fears to rest. Not only did she come up with the cash, but she stayed in Haiti three weeks and returned a month later to supervise the early construction herself. She even spent the night in Cite Soleil, sharing a one-room shanty with 17 Haitians. "If she told someone from Haiti she had slept in Cite Soleil, they'd say, 'Are you crazy?' " says Maximilien. "They wouldn't go in there in a thousand years. But Susie's not afraid of anything."

By early 1996 she and the director of the local foundation had built not only a clinic to feed children and nursing mothers but also an adjacent school for up to 75 students. With that running smoothly, Krabacher's thoughts returned to the abandoned children she had seen in the hospital. In 1997 she persuaded administrators to allow her and her growing local staff to use a small room off the pediatric unit to care for disabled children whom the overworked nurses had all but ignored. Soon the little ward was overflowing, so in February 1998, Krabacher bought a building in Port-au-Prince for $111,500 and established the Mercy House orphanage.

Word of her work soon spread, and last June a voodoo priest from the mountains outside Port-au-Prince approached Maximilien and asked for the "white woman's" help. When Krabacher visited, she found 106 orphans in a rundown building, drinking water from streams and living off mangoes and whatever else they could forage. Another 800 children attended a school the priest had run with his wife but which he was struggling to manage after she died. Krabacher wrote a check on the spot for $3,000 to see all the children through the first month, and she has kept the place going ever since.

With monthly bills for Krabacher's projects totaling $11,500, money is now tight. And while she has collected more than $300,000 in donations, she and Joe have spent at least $340,000 of their own. Still, Joe shares his wife's conviction—and her faith. "You worry about her, of course," he says. "But God is protecting the work being done because it's his work. That makes it easier to let her go and to get through the difficult times." Her parents are just as proud of their daughter. "She has grown," says Betty Scott, who reconciled with Susan in 1986 and has twice traveled with her to Haiti. "It's wonderful what she is doing."

Certainly, Krabacher finds solace in religion, especially during the hardest of times, as when two baby orphans she was trying to hand-feed back to health died in 1994 and when her younger brother Mark, 26, committed suicide two years later. "I honestly believe with my heart and soul that those children came to me, as did my brother, as a stopover before they went back to God," she says. Meanwhile she has high hopes for the children who remain, including the squealing gaggle of rag-clad kids who surrounded her on a recent visit to Cite Soleil. Like a glamorous pied piper, Krabacher scooped up a crying toddler and led the throng down a dirt alley past puddles of raw sewage to the brightly painted cement-block structure that houses her school. "My long-term dream," she says, "is to work myself out of a job, to teach these kids enough so that one or two will take care of their own. This came to them because somebody loved them, so hopefully now they will do the same for others."

Anne-Marie O'Neill
Vickie Bane in Aspen and Fannie Weinstein in Port-au-Prince

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