Family helping Haitian teen achieve his dream

Wesley Saintilnord, 19, (center) from Haiti is getting help for his tuition at Gloucester County College and is staying with the Willard family, (front, from left) Steve, Meg, and two of their sons, Jason, and Jesse. Saintilnord plans to attend medical school.
Wesley Saintilnord, 19, (center) from Haiti is getting help for his tuition at Gloucester County College and is staying with the Willard family, (front, from left) Steve, Meg, and two of their sons, Jason, and Jesse. Saintilnord plans to attend medical school. (PATRICK MCPEAK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 19, 2013

Wesley Saintilnord dreamed of becoming a doctor but it wasn't until the 2010 earthquake ravaged his country that he could see a way to make it happen.

Saintilnord grew up in rural Haiti, the son of a preacher raising three children and four orphaned family members. They relied on his mother, who sells clothes at a nearby market.

His exemplary schoolwork earned him a monthlong program during the summer of 2009 that brought him to a family in South Jersey and gave him the opportunity to fine-tune his English.

When the Magnitude 7 earthquake struck the island nation just months after his return, Saintilnord found himself translating for foreign doctors, even standing by during surgeries.

"I was good at English and could help in this way," Saintilnord said last week.

He also saw a different future for himself.

"I wanted to be more useful in a way, not only translate for American doctors but be the one, be the doctor and help."

He turned to the Willard family of Carneys Point, Salem County, who hosted him in 2009 and opened their doors to him again.

Today, the 19-year-old Gloucester County College freshman is well on his way, managing a 4.0 GPA last semester while preparing to start an on-campus tutoring job. He hopes to transfer to a four-year college, then move on to medical school - all thanks to an extraordinary network of benefactors.

Meg Willard said the family quickly came to love the tall, skinny teen who never stopped asking questions, and they vowed to help do what it took to bring him back.

"I could tell that he had the drive, and he had the heart, and the intelligence to really make a difference in that country, which really needs it," said Willard, 50. "It's not just investing in him, it's investing in a whole community."

She acknowledges that it's also a big commitment for her family: her husband, Steve, 53 and their three sons, Aaron, 28, Jacob, 24, and Jesse, 19.

While Saintilnord doubled down on his schoolwork, graduating last spring as valedictorian, the Willards embarked on a plan to get Saintilnord back in South Jersey on a two-year student visa. They organized others from their church, First Baptist in Woodstown, who had helped Saintilnord during his first visit.

The supporters raised thousands of dollars to fund Saintilnord's trip, his tuition, and even trips to learn about the country. They also arranged for volunteers to drive him the 45-minute trip to school every day. Their annual budget is $13,000 per year and donations keep coming into a web site: www.changinghaitionelifeatatime.yolasite.com

"It's really kind of like the adage, 'It takes a village.' Well, it takes a church, really," Meg Willard said.

The fund has enough to last through the end of the next semester.

"We're just going on faith," said Meg Willard. "Community college is relatively cheap, he lives with us." The family is hoping his academic performance will eventually net him a scholarship for a four-year college, followed by medical school.

Saintilnord's English teacher, Marcela Stein-Savelski, said she was surprised when she began to learn more about the boy with the big smile who always sits in the front row.

"He's very humble, very, very humble. He tells his story if you ask him to do so," she said. "But you don't see him bragging or anything like that. He's also very appreciative. He has thanked me for teaching him."

Stein-Savelski said Saintilnord stands out, even among the many international students in her English 101 and 102 classes.

"I don't see many people planning on a medical career like he is. He is so focused, he knows what he wants. And he has the humanitarian aspect to himself," said Stein-Savelski, 54, herself a former international student from Argentina who studied at GCC. For now, Saintilnord wants to focus on continuing to do well in his classes, learning the culture, maybe playing a little soccer.

Two weeks ago, he received a social security number that will allow him to tutor others on campus, earning a small but steady paycheck.

He recently opened his first bank account, and wants to get his New Jersey driver's license.

The boy who grew up without running water or electricity has gotten used to the conveniences of American life like regular trash pickup, air conditioning, and washing machines.

And while the Willards tease him about becoming Americanized, they say they too have changed.

"He has taught me a lot about patience," said Meg Willard, recalling Saintilnord's mantra of always thinking positive.

The Willard family is better off than it was a year ago, Jacob Willard said. "He calls her [Meg Willard] 'Mother,' and I'm definitely his brother . . . It's a big commitment, but we wouldn't have it any other way."


Contact Jonathan Lai at 856-779-3220, jlai@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @elaijuh.

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