Haitian Charity From a Convicted Cheat

Suzie Graf might have a criminal record, but those PODS full of donations she solicited are on their way to Haiti

The first thing you notice about Suzie Graf is her voice, or, rather, her purr. It’s about an octave too high in pitch for anyone but a small child, and while one presumes it’s meant to be disarming, it’s less suggestive of innocence than Marilyn Monroe huffing helium. At 55 years old, she’s remarkably physically fit, with no trace of surgical enhancement or even makeup on her face. She’s curled up in a chair at the dining room of her rented house in the upscale Shorecliffs neighborhood, a non-gated community in San Clemente that boasts million-dollar ocean views and exclusive access to a private beach.

It’s a chilly, overcast morning on a recent weekday, but Graf is snug in a pair of velour après-ski boots, faded jeans and a white sweat shirt. Her daughter, Tess, a personal trainer who also speaks in the same strange, catlike voice as her mom, is wearing black Spandex jogging pants and running shoes. Two large, friendly, fluffy dogs of an uncertain breed frolic nearby on the Grafs’ wooden deck, which offers a commanding view of a mist-shrouded canyon with houses on the opposite ridge and, in between, a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean.

Graf is explaining how she single-handedly orchestrated the collection and delivery of 6 tons of emergency supplies for the suffering people of Haiti less than a week after that country’s devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. “I just decided that we just needed to do a community effort,” Graf explains. “I started reaching out, and it just kind of grew and grew and grew. People started asking about medical supplies; we got rollaway beds, two wheelchairs, two crutches, orthopedic boots—medical supplies just started pouring in.”

John Gilhooley
Graf stands next to a trio of storage containers outside her San Clemente house. At press time, the containers were on their way to aid earthquake victims in Haiti
John Gilhooley
Graf stands next to a trio of storage containers outside her San Clemente house. At press time, the containers were on their way to aid earthquake victims in Haiti

Graf called the Clearwater, Florida-based storage company PODS, which promised to send her as many storage containers as she needed. She also arranged for a Redondo Beach company called Stevens Global Logistics to deliver the containers by rail to Florida and, from there, to have them shipped to Haiti via Sante Shipping Lines. Her effort was impressive enough to catch the attention of a local newspaper, the San Clemente Times, which, on Jan. 21 ran an article titled “To Haiti With Love” about her and other local residents who were directing spontaneous collection drives in town.

“Suzie Graf just knew she had to do something,” Norb Garrett’s story began. “As she and her family sat in their San Clemente living room seemingly worlds away from the mayhem and disaster in Haiti . . . she told her husband, Chuck, and two college-aged children that she would do something—not sure exactly what—to help.” Garrett, the paper’s publisher, noted that Graf was recently “laid off from work as an executive assistant; her husband, a general contractor, is in the throes of dealing with the major slowdown in building jobs”; and “one of her dogs was just diagnosed with cancer,” he wrote.

Despite this, Garrett noted, nobody in Graf’s family was “surprised” that she was jumping in to help the Haitians. “This is a typical mom move,” Graf’s son, Max, told Garrett, whose story ended by telling readers Graf’s home address, where a PODS container awaited donations, along with advice to “leave the donation at the door of the house if no one is home or if late at night.” Thanks in part to the Times article, Graf was able to gather the tons of supplies in three PODS containers that sat outside her home for a week. Those containers are well on their way to helping needy victims in Haiti. At press time, according to Mark Lewis, director of the Evangelical Free Church of America’s TouchGlobal Crisis Response, they had arrived in Florida and were awaiting delivery by cargo ship from Miami to Cap-Haitien, a port in northern Haiti.

Lewis had just returned from a few weeks in Haiti, where he oversaw his organization’s initial relief mission there. He says Graf, with whom he shares a mutual friend, contacted him within a week of the earthquake, offering to provide his group with whatever supplies he needed.

“In Cap-Haitien, there is a large population of folks who have been displaced from Port-au-Prince, and we have a medical team that is still around the area,” Lewis said. “Those supplies will end up in Cap-Haitien and be distributed there.

“It’s cool to see people come together,” he added. “The little things people do really do make a difference. I look around and see all these people doing the same thing. It takes people from all across the country to make this happen.”

In a different world—perhaps a kinder, more forgiving one—this heartwarming tale might have ended right here. But there’s much more to Susan Graf’s story, although none of it would likely have come to light if Graf’s hometown paper hadn’t highlighted her efforts to help the people of Haiti.

As it happened, numerous people who read the Times article couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw her photograph splashed across the newspaper’s front page. They contacted officials with Capo Beach Calvary, the church Graf attends, and told them she wasn’t exactly the altruistic volunteer she had portrayed herself to be in her interview with the newspaper.

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