The family of Rachel Smylie, a former Oak Park and River Forest High School student who died April 7 in a single car crash while in Namibia, have established the Rachel G. Smylie Memorial Scholarship in memory of Rachel's love of Africa.
"At the end of her junior year of high school Rachel came home with an announcement that she would go to Tanzania," Mark Smylie, Rachel's father, said on Monday.
Rachel traveled to Tanzania with the Chicago based organization The Road Less Traveled without any of her friends, which Mark said, "was a bold move."
The 21-year-old former OPRF volleyball and lacrosse athlete, described by neighbors and friends as bright, beautiful and adventurous, no doubt made friends and generated, Mark said, an interest in public health while in Africa.
While in Tanzania, Rachel helped dig a foundation for a new teachers dormitory, played with children who had HIV/AIDS and lived among the Hadza tribe.
"It was a life changing experience," said Mark. One that made her desire to return to Africa.
While studying at the University of Michigan, Rachel continued to learn about HIV/AIDS through coursework and volunteer work at a clinic in Ann Arbor.
She returned to Africa early this year, her junior year at U of M, to study for a semester at the University of Cape Town.
Around the time of Rachel and her friend's accident, Mark said, she was doing what she loved, "being out in God's creation."
Since the announcement of Rachel's death, Mark said the support the family has received has been extraordinary. Neighbors and friends have placed ribbons, luminaries and flowers outside the Smylies' home on Forest Avenue.
Mark said the Smylies' have also gotten a chance to see Rachel through the eyes of those who knew her.
It was the mother of one of the students in the car with Rachel at the time of the accident who called her, "a forcefield of joy," said Mark.
The description was perfect, he thought, for one of the photos accompanying information about the scholarship—in it Rachel, with a bright, open smile, is embracing an elephant's trunk that is draped over her left shoulder.
Another person called to tell the Smylies' how Rachel reached out to a fellow student in middle school. She had noticed the student being left out and wanted to help.
Her care for people continued into college as well.
"Rachel was the light to all of our lives. She lit up any room she walked into and touched every person she met," said a friend and Alpha Phi sorority sister, Kaitlyn Mills. "Rachel always knew what to say to make anyone laugh, and she always had a smile on her face."
Mills said Rachel had told her how happy she was while studying abroad and that it is what gives her peace.
Over the past week, students at OPRF and at U of M have remembered Rachel at games, assemblies and vigils.
The Smylies' have not yet finalized dates for a memorial service. At the moment the family is in the process of repatriating Rachel.
"We've collected a lot of stories [about Rachel]," said Mark. "She touched a lot of people in such a short time."