Ask anyone about Christel DeHaan’s defining traits, and the words “hard worker” inevitably come up. The German native was born in the last days of World War II and raised by her mother after her father was killed during an American air raid. As a teen, she moved to England to work as a domestic, then to Indiana after meeting her first husband, who was a soldier based in the United Kingdom.
In 1974, she and her second husband, Jon DeHaan, started a time-share company called Resort Condominiums International. DeHaan maintained control of the company after she and her husband divorced, and in 1997, she sold it for $825 million.
But she wasn’t ready for a life of leisure. Shortly thereafter, a former colleague asked her for financial support for two Mexican orphanages. DeHaan decided to visit, and what she found drastically changed her post-RCI plans. To help the poorest of the poor raise themselves out of poverty, she developed a “poverty alleviation model” that included providing schools, then helping students with other milestones like getting into college and finding jobs. The organization, founded in 1998, became known as Christel House International.
Until shortly before her death this year from cancer, DeHaan remained deeply involved in its operations. She even visited each Christel House school annually, requiring trips to three countries.
The organization’s capabilities became so widely known that, when Oprah Winfrey wanted to open her own school in South Africa, she asked DeHaan for her input.
She also wasn’t stingy about financing the program. DeHaan covered all of the group’s administrative costs, which she did to ensure that money from outside donors went directly to children. That arrangement has continued after her death.
“As founder, I will continue to support the organization,” DeHaan told IBJ in 2018. “My financial commitment ensures that 100% of donor contributions will go directly to help kids. There is a structure in place to ensure that general and administrative and fundraising expenses are covered in perpetuity.”
DeHaan also founded and chaired the Christel DeHaan Family Foundation, which provides $2 million annually to central Indiana arts and cultural organizations.
Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson shared DeHaan’s belief in the importance of education, and the two worked together to promote Indiana charter schools. Today, he serves as president and CEO of Christel House International, which operates two schools in India, one in South Africa, one in Mexico, one in Jamaica, and three charter schools in Indianapolis.
“I remember the two of us walking into a meeting with the governor,” Peterson said. “She was asking for his support on a particular legislative change, and said, ‘Governor, if you want me to get on my knees and beg, I will do that.’”
She got her way, as she did on most issues.
“‘No’ was never an acceptable answer to her,” Peterson said. “She could convince you to do what she wanted you to do, and almost always leave you feeling good about it.”