An organisation as remarkable as its Founder

Christel DeHaan, Founder, Christel House
Christel DeHaan, Founder, Christel House

The story behind how this organization was setup is as interesting as its educational principles. Setup by Christel DeHaan, it is one of the many schools that falls under the Christel House International network of schools that are present in four continents. The first being in Mexico in 1998, followed by schools in South Africa, Venezuela, USA, Serbia, and, of course, India. However, Christel DeHaan is more famous for her contributions to the time-share exchange business, Resort Condominiums International (RCI), which she co-founded with her husband Jon DeHaan, in 1973. To put her association with RCI in a nutshell – In 1979, when he suffered a heart attack, she took over the company’s daily management. In 1987, she was awarded half the company when she and Mr. DeHaan divorced. In 1989 she purchased the rest from her ex-husband for $67.5 million. Six years later, in 1996, she became doubly rich when she sold RCI for for $825 million and pocketed $550 million in cash.

But unlike many who keep their fortunes to themselves, DeHaan decided to use it on helping others instead. And it was her upbringing coupled with her visit to two orphanages on a visit to Mexico in 1998 that led her to work for children. Born in Nordlingen, Germany in 1942 (at the height of Nazi power), she was left fatherless when her father, a German soldier, died in the war. She was raised in the ruins of post-War Germany by her mother, to whom she attributes a great deal of her inspiration. Even though they were living in a time of need, her mother never let her feel they were deprived. There was always place at the table for others and the neighbourhood children would often share their food.

In Mexico, she saw that children were warehoused in crowded dormitories with only a tiny patio for nearly 150 to play. Washing was done by hand, and hung on the roof to dry. The other facility had no electricity — the generator was broken — and water was gathered from a cistern. To get to school, the children walked five kilometers because the school bus was broken. When she looked at these conditions, she realized that writing a check would make life easier for the short term but, in the end, the cycle of poverty into which these children were born was destined to repeat itself for generations. That realization gave rise to founding Christel House on the principle that while education is a great equalizer and the pathway to a better life; to truly help impoverished children, it needed to be combined with a holistic approach to human development. This explains why Christel House Foundation’s mission is, “to help children around the world break the cycle of poverty realize their hopes and dreams, and become self-sufficient, contributing member of society.

Since inception, DeHaan has been working hard to ensure that her program produces real and permanent change. It’s no secret that she spends eight-hour days in her office four days a week overseeing administrative matters. She helps pick principals for each of her schools, which she visits at least once a year and holds weekly Skype conference calls with each facility’s upper management.

Christel House Foundation centers are found in countries where the RCI business evolved and grew – essentially to give back to the communities where the business flourished. They are known as “Houses” because she wanted the children to feel that this is their house/home. It’s been 15 years that she has been running the show as president, chairwoman and grandmother in chief! Till date, she has given $100 million of her own money to the organization (out of the $130 million needed to establish the schools). She has pledged to cover the organization’s overhead costs forever. She leverages her contribution by soliciting corporate donations of goods and services: computers, medical supplies, clothes and books from such outfits as Microsoft, Marsh Supermarkets and RCI itself. She’s even planning to give her mansion — assessed for tax purposes at $4.3 million — to the school when she dies.

So remarkable is her story that even Oprah Winfrey came to her for advice on how to get her own international school in South Africa up and running!

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