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From Playmate to angel

Susie Scott Krabacher has made caring for the children in Haiti's slums her mission in life.

By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published December 27, 2003

[Times photos: John Pendygraft]
Susan Scott Krabacher holds a young child outside a school she runs in Cite Soleil. "Bon jour, cherie," (Good day, darling) she greets everyone.

Krabacher kisses 7-year old Marty, one of the children she cares for in Port au Prince, Haiti.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - When she started her modeling career, working with poor slum children in Haiti wasn't exactly what Susie Scott Krabacher had in mind.

Instead, she spent her early 20s partying at Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion. It earned her a centerfold spread and the title of May 1983 Playboy Playmate.

But, these days, "Madame Susie," as she's known to adoring kids in the Cite Soleil slum, has turned her life around - remarkably so.

Krabacher, who retains her slim figure and model looks, is the first to recognize her unusual transition.

"Yes, I'm the Playboy Playmate Mother Teresa of Haiti," she joked.

But there is no making light of her achievements. After arriving in Haiti nine years ago she founded the Mercy and Sharing Foundation with the support of her husband, Aspen, Colo., attorney Joe Krabacher. Now they run six schools and three orphanages, with a total of 1,889 children.

In recognition of her work, Krabacher was recently made an honorary Haitian citizen. She is also a member of the illustrious Miami Children's Hospital Hall of Fame.

"Susie is quite amazing and unique," said Ann Lyons, vice president of programs at the Miami Children's Hospital Foundation.

Her first school - built in 1994 for $10,000 - sits in the heart of the Bellecourt district of Cite Soleil, a warren of muddy alleyways alongside a rubbish-strewn canal.

Barefoot children push and shove to greet her as she steps from an SUV wearing leopard-spotted platforms, jeans and a lowcut blouse. It's important to look your best in a slum, she says.

"They like to see that people who have nice things are not afraid to visit," she says. As for her shoes? "I always go in platforms. I find they keep the mud off my feet."

She draws the line at designer sunglasses and handbags, insisting instead on knock-offs: "I stopped wearing Gucci and Fendi when I realized that I could feed a hundred kids for what they cost."

Whereas most people would be lost in such surroundings, Krabacher is in her element. This is gangland territory. A score of young men recently died in a gang war for control of Cite Soleil that lasted two months.

But there are no bodyguards to keep back the masses or push off the younger men, one of whom whispered in her ear recently as a dozen children clutched her pants.

"Bon jour, cherie," (Good day, darling) she greets everyone - gang member or not - with a girlish tone in her voice.

Krabacher, a devout Christian, says she first considered helping the poor after seeing a TV documentary about poor children in Mongolia. A victim of abuse while in foster care as a child, the images made a deep impression on her.

"Those kids had the same look in their eyes that I had after being sexually abused. It just woke me up."

She decided to visit Mongolia and see if she could help. But a friend at her church in Aspen who had just returned from Haiti advised her to look closer to home.

She spent three terrifying nights here during her first visit in 1994. Accompanied only by her church friend, the couple took a taxi from the airport. In broken French they told the driver they wanted to visit "Mother Teresa's Home for the Poor." The driver didn't understand.

"He thought we wanted to see houses of poor people, so he dropped us off in the middle of Cite Soleil," Krabacher recalled.

Instead of bolting for one of the comfortable hotels where foreigners usually stay, Scott spent the night in the slum. A family agreed to take her in. Within three days she had started hiring workers to build concrete blocks for the school.

"Those three days changed my life, rocked my world," she said. "I knew why I was born that day. I couldn't think of going home without doing something because I knew I could."

But Krabacher soon realized the needs of children stretched far beyond Cite Soleil. She sold her partnership in an Aspen sushi bar and an antiques business, and invested everything she had in founding the Mercy and Sharing Foundation.

Soon she began picking up abandoned children all over the city. She helped furnish a ward at the general hospital to look after the sick and abandoned children.

When the hospital decided it could no longer care for the children she had rescued, she bought a house and moved them all there. "Ninety percent of those children are still alive," she says proudly.

Now Krabacher has a contract to run a unit for abandoned children at the hospital. Meanwhile, the foundation has grown to a staff of 130 and a $240,000 annual budget, almost half of which the Krabachers donate out of their own pockets.

She is entirely dedicated to her Haiti projects, visiting the country almost every month. During her time stateside she raises funds and travels to speaking engagements.

Krabacher doesn't hesitate to use her looks and Playboy past to lure potential donors. But, despite two appearances on Oprah, and a spread in People magazine, she still struggles to get funding.

To be sure, she has encountered generosity. American Airlines lets her fly for free. Three years ago American also donated a 757 jet to fly 39,000 pounds of rice and beans to Haiti for the foundation.

Krabacher believes the foundation has been able to make a difference for abandoned children in Haiti, along with the work of other public and private programs, such as Palm Harbor-based For Haiti With Love, and Hands Together, with offices in Massachusetts.

"We have seen tremendous improvements," she said. "In the beginning we lost two or three kids a day. I spent a lot of time in the morgue."

Most died of complications from diarrhea and dehydration.

Others are born with more serious conditions, such as hydrocephalus, spina bifida, and heart and lung problems.

At one of her orphanages in Cazeau, just outside the capital, tiny infants lie in cribs in clean and cheerfully painted dorms decorated with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

"This little girl weighed less than a pound when we found her," she said, patting a sleeping child on the bottom. "Today she probably weighs 5 to 6 lbs."

She names the abandoned kids after donors and friends in Aspen. Some are put up for adoption, including the disabled.

As she does her rounds, Krabacher gives every child a big kiss on the lips. Some demand more than one kiss and big hugs. She tries to cheer up Martin, a sad-faced 7-year-old sitting in a high chair, who suffers from hydrocephalus - water on the brain. Because his head is so swollen, he never learned to walk. Krabacher explains that therapy to strengthen his legs is causing him pain. He smiles sheepishly when she plays with his feet, pumping his matchstick legs.

Krabacher found another boy, Junior, in a pig pen behind a downtown ministry building.

"He was totally naked living with the pigs," she said. "He bit me when I tried to get him in the car."

Other children lie in bed, their atrophied limbs in contorted positions.

"Jacques was one of my first," Krabacher says, leaning over the skinny frame of a boy. "He's never really been ...," her voice trails off momentarily as she shows a rare sign of emotion.

"We nearly lost him a dozen times," she manages. "He just keeps hanging on."

Like many of the children, his tongue is so swollen he can't swallow on his own, and he also suffers from severely stunted growth.

"These kids are stronger than any other kids I have met," she said. "For some reason they always smile and look you in the eyes. They are not vegetables. They are aware."

Krabacher has plans to continue expanding if funding permits. She wants to install computers in her schools and build a vocational training center to teach jobs skills.

Her staff says her energy and determination are what impresses them the most.

"She's real," said Robert Lieske, 78, the director of the orphanage, who came to Haiti to work with the poor in 1982. Over the years he has seen many other well-meaning projects crash and burn in Haiti's tough environment.

"Even if it (Mercy and Sharing) fell apart tomorrow, Susie will have achieved more than most people in a lifetime as far as helping others is concerned," he said.

If you want to help

If you would like to make a donation or learn more about the Mercy and Sharing Foundation, visit the Web site: telephone: 970 925-1492 or (970) 925-6300 (Joe Krabacher's office). For other groups mentioned in this story, visit:

- 727 938-3245

- 413 731-7716.

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