It isn’t uncommon for entrepreneurs to be philanthropists. They run some of the world’s largest charitable organisations. But it isn’t often that you find someone who sells their multi-million dollar business and sets up a nonprofit that works to eradicate poverty with the money.
That’s the story of Christel DeHaan, the 76-year-old founder of Christel House. Over the past two decades, she built 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.
In 1973, Christel and her husband set up Resort Condominiums International. The venture 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. The residents had to gather water 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 of poverty. These children and communities needed more than money. They needed a system of change. They needed an organisation that educated and empowered them. So she set out with a new mission–to build that organisation.
With her sharp mind and business acumen, it wasn’t hard for her to see the root of the problem. Her long-term plan was an institute that gave education, nutrition, health checkups, and general awareness to poor communities. This was how she established Christel House.
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 available resources. This was her way of giving back to countries that served her well during her days running RCI.
She would build a system that fought poverty with education. But education alone was not enough. 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 high school. During this time, they give their students two nutritious meals a day, regular health checkups, and needed medical care.
Upon graduation, they provide counselling and financial help for college and job placements. They instil 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. She ensures that whatever the donors give, 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.
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