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American girl, just 12, builds 27 homes in Haiti

What's next for Rachel Wheeler? Building a school in the earthquake-ravaged country

By Mary Murray
NBC News producer

LEOGANE, Haiti - If there really is something called "helper’s high" - that feel-good sensation that comes from extending a helping hand to others - Rachel Wheeler is soaring.

The 12-year-old Florida resident has done more to aid others than many grown-ups do in a lifetime.

Three years ago, when she was only nine, Rachel tagged along with her mother to a very adult meeting about charity work in Haiti. She listened as Robin Mahfood, from the aid agency Food For The Poor, describe children so hungry that they eat cookies made of mud, so poor that they sleep in houses made of cardboard.

At the time, Julie Wheeler wasn’t even sure her young daughter understood much of what was being discussed— "until Rachel stood on a chair in front of all those adults and pledged to help Food For The Poor," Wheeler said.

Then a fourth grader, Rachel promised to raise money to build a dozen homes in Haiti.

"Rachel didn’t just want to help," her mother remembers, "but she said she had to help."

Rachel ran bake sales, passed the can at homecoming games and sold homemade potholders at her Zion Lutheran School in Deerfield Beach, Fla. She mailed fundraising appeals to the parents of her friends and the people she knew from church. In her hometown, the Lighthouse Point Chamber of Commerce cut two sizable checks.

Through her Facebook page and word-of-mouth, a cherry farm in Washington heard about Rachel and sent along the proceeds from one of its season's harvest. Another generous donation came from a family that regularly supports the overseas work of Food For The Poor.

In three short years, this little girl raised more than $250,000.

Instead of just building 12 homes, Rachel more than doubled her promise. She spent $170,000 on brand-new earthquake-proof cement structures that shelter 27 families in a small fishing town outside of the capital Port-au-Prince. The families baptized the housing tract "Rachel’s Village."

Many of the new homeowners had spent their entire lives residing in makeshift homes and tents. Food For The Poor had to give instructions on how to fit a key in a lock and turn a doorknob.

Rachel’s dream now is to rebuild the local school, which was severely damaged in the catastrophic 7.2 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in early 2010, killing 316,000 people and leaving 3 million homeless.

She has about half of the money she needs to fix the Reap de Morel school in Leogane, where 200 students learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic in classrooms that have no walls, a patched tin roof and dirt floors. Mahfood calls the fact that children even attend school "a small miracle," given that most are homeless, hungry and live in a country where more than half the population can't read or write their own name.

Classrooms are partitioned by bed sheets. The school "library" is a simple wooden table displaying no more than 30 tattered books. Each child owns just a single pencil and notebook. Textbooks are as scarce as food.

In a makeshift cafeteria, women spend the morning cooking huge vats of rice and beans. By 10 a.m., students are too hungry to concentrate, so lunch is served. This hot lunch, supplied by Food For The Poor, is the only meal of the day for most of these children.

Food For The Poor has worked in Haiti for 25 years. The charity runs hundreds of food pantries that feed more than 400,000 people daily and it supports dozens of free health clinics with medicines to treat thousands of children a week. Many young Haitians suffer from deadly diseases such as cholera, which has killed more than 6,200 Haitians and sickened nearly 440,000 over the past year.

Rachel has been to Haiti twice and has seen the abject poverty firsthand. "I don’t believe I can snap my fingers and change Haiti overnight," she said. "I know I have to work at it."

One might call her approach mature for a 12-year-old. But Rachel isn't your typical pre-teen. She has already invested a fourth of her life to her cause.

"If everyone helped Haiti like Rachel, the country could stand on its own," said Mahfood. "In five years, Haiti would be a completely different country."

If you want to learn more about Food For The Poor and Rachel's cause, go to www.foodforthepoor.org/rachel or call 1-800-427-9104.