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Susan Naylor '84 honors her late son's memory by founding a children's academy in West Africa.
by Nicolette Good ’07
When Susan Naylor’s return flight from Africa touched down in San Antonio earlier this month, she was headed home from her second trip to Togo in seven years. This trip was very different from her first voyage to establish a primary school in memory of her late son, Will Smith, who, at 8 years old, was killed in a car accident in 2007.
Before Will lost his young life, the Naylors visited Zambia in southern Africa. The then-6-year-old was moved by the children he saw who were less fortunate than he was.
“The kids in the villages were asking if they could have our empty water bottles one day,” Naylor ’84 remembers about the family trip. “That night, Will said, ‘When we come back, I want to bring my toys and share my toys with them,’” she recalls.
The death of her youngest son was devastating. While vacationing in Maui, she and Will were driving on the Honoapiilani Highway when they were struck head-on by a vehicle headed in the opposite direction that had swerved into oncoming traffic. Naylor was not seriously injured; Will was banged up but, initially, it looked as if he would make it out, too.
As they waited for help, Naylor prayed. She promised to fulfill the wish Will had made two years before.
“That was my thought as I was waiting for the ambulance— ‘help the kids in Africa’,” says Naylor.
But Will’s airway had been crushed, and he passed away at the hospital later that afternoon. Shortly after, the Will Smith Foundation was born from Naylor’s grief and her refusal to surrender to it. She poured herself into the new charitable organization aimed at serving children's causes.
“To me it’s taking something that was negative, and turning it into a positive,” says Naylor, whose trademark for the foundation is “Will Do®.”
A cornerstone project of the foundation has been the primary school she established in West Africa: The Will Smith Mentor Leaders Academy in the village of Gbentchal, in northern Togo. The academy opened with the help of a friend who had an established relationship with the community there.
Situated on the Gulf of Guinea, the relatively small African country is marked by a high rate of poverty, ethnic tensions, and periods of political unrest. During her first voyage to Gbentchal — about a 13-hour drive from the country’s capital, Lomé — she saw first-hand that children in the rural farming community had limited access to education, and that a school such as The Will Smith Mentor Leaders Academy would be transformational.
“I stayed several nights there in a tent under its original construction,” she recalls about visiting the future site of the academy.
Fast forward to 2019, though, she proudly reports robust development.
“There was a huge celebration this time,” says Naylor, who was received by the Togolese students with music and festivities. “The children have been learning to play band instruments, and there was traditional dance.”
Today the academy enrolls students through high school grades and has a library.
“Our first class graduates next year,” she says. “Now this farming community has kids who test out higher than the children in cities.”
The key to success in charitable enterprises abroad, says Naylor, is sustainability.
“If you don’t teach how to continue the improvements and to keep moving forward, it’s all going to go away,” she says. “Now, the students can head off to university and bring things back to the village to keep paying it forward.”
She continues charitable projects for children in Africa as well as Hawaii—two places with special gravity for Naylor. No stranger to travel, Naylor worked as a travel agent for 20 years after graduating from Trinity University with a double major in Business Administration and History.
“I’m curious about other people’s cultures, the way they do things,” says Naylor, who was born in San Marcos and spent most of her life in the Alamo city. “I know when I come back home to San Antonio I feel renewed and rejuvenated.”
Her successful career came as a surprise for the self-proclaimed homebody from a Texas cattle ranching family.
“I was lucky enough to get into Trinity, so I could stay close to home,” says Naylor, who graduated from Winston Churchill High School. “Everyone else wanted to get away from their parents, go to Texas Tech or UT, but that’s the last thing I wanted to do.”
Naylor, who is celebrating her 35th reunion this year, has fond memories of her alma mater. “Trinity was personal,” she says. “My professors, especially Drs. Donald Everett and Linda Hall, were passionate about what they taught.”
Throughout college, Naylor rode show horses in hunter/jumper circuits, which kept her busy outside the Trinity classrooms. She worked as a horse pinhooker until Will’s death, when she retired. But last year, she bought a horse farm in Kentucky.
“When the horses need a break, it’s kind of a rehab,” she explains. “We do a lot of body work, including chiropractic and acupuncture, to get them healthy again.”
Horse country may also be a place where Naylor can continue her own healing. She lost her elder son, Charlie, to opioid addiction in 2016. She says it got her head out of the sand about the nationwide opioid crisis, and she has since become involved with Rise Recovery in San Antonio.
“I do it for Charlie, so that he is always remembered, and for the other families who struggle like we did,” she says. “Both my boys will be remembered, and I can carry forth their hearts and their spirits.”
Nicolette Good graduated from Trinity University in 2007 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Music. In addition to being a traditional writer she is a working singer/songwriter, as well as a staff musician for Home Street Music, a nonprofit using music to empower individuals who have experienced homelessness. You can reach her at nicolette.good [at] gmail.com.