It isn’t uncommon for entrepreneurs to be philanthropists. Some of the world’s largest charitable organisations are run by entrepreneurs. But it isn’t too often that you find someone who sells their multi-million dollar business and sets up a nonprofit with their money.
That’s the story of Christel DeHaan, the 76-year-old founder of Christel House, an exemplary school for underprivileged children across the world.
Christel was born in Germany right at the end of World War II. Growing up in war-torn Germany, she was all too familiar with poverty. She left to the UK when she was 16 to work as a nanny. Shortly after, she moved to Indianapolis, USA, where she found a place to call home.
The trip that changed her life
In 1973, Christel and her husband set up Resort Condominiums International, a venture which went on to become the world’s largest vacation exchange provider. In 1996, she sold the company for a whopping $360 million.
Two years later, on a trip to Mexico, Christel’s life took a sharp turn. While visiting some of their orphanages, she saw that children were warehoused in crowded dormitories. There was no electricity in most orphanages and water was gathered from a cistern. Kids had to walk long distances to school each day because the school buses were broken.
Being no stranger to destitute conditions herself, Christel knew that a fat cheque would not solve the problem. These children and communities needed more than money. They needed a system of change, and an organisation that pushed, educated and inspired them. Christel set out with a new mission–to build that organisation.
With her sharp mind and business acumen, it wasn’t hard to see the root of the problem and map out a long-term development plan. Christel knew that she needed to build an institute that gave education, nutrition, health checkups and general awareness to impoverished communities. This was how Christel House was established.
The organisation that changed thousands of lives
Christel House was first set up in Indiana, USA and went on to have centres in Mexico, India and South Africa. Setting up centres internationally could have been tricky, but Christel leveraged her knowledge from running RCI to gain pace.
She aimed for regions that had high levels of poverty, easy-to-work-with tax and legal structures, and most importantly, available resources. She believed that it was her way of giving back to countries that served her well during her days running RCI.
The mission was to provide children with a holistic growth for at least 20 years. ‘The multiplier effect’, as she calls it, was a sure shot way to break the cycle of poverty in a family.
Christel House educates kids till school and then sees them through college and placements with counselling and financial assistance. They also provide their students with two nutritious meals a day as well as regular health checkups and needed medical care. They deeply inculcate values of compassion and service within their children and many of them go on to serve the community as they grow older.
Christel thinks of the organisation as a joint venture between her and those who donate to help them. She covers all the administrative costs of the international organisation, which has been an average of $5.7 million each year. Her goal is to ensure that whatever is given by the donors goes directly towards helping the children.
Until the age of 75, she worked long hours, including weekends. She visited all the Christel House locations every year, which spanned across four continents. There was a lot to be done and she was always on top of it.
In October 2018, she decided to step down as the CEO of Christel House. She continues to serve on the board while the CEO is now Bard Peterson, former mayor of Indianapolis. Christel trusts that she’s left her legacy in the right hands, under the care of someone who understands her vision of excellence for all.
You can support the incredible work done by Christel House in India.