Those early images of abject poverty in Port-au-Prince -- each scene teeming with people living without the most basic of human needs -- are burned into Renata Wettermann's memory.
She first traveled to Haiti the summer of 2011, about 18 months after a catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake left tens of thousands dead and many more homeless.
Renata WettermannAge: 18
School: Rice University (Fremd High School graduate)
Who inspires you? My parents, my brothers and sisters in Haiti, Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health and Kathy Millin of the Palatine Opportunity Center
What's on your iPod? An eclectic mix of classic rock (like Queen!!!), modern alternative rock and classical music
What book are you reading? I've read "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde every fall for the past five years, so I just started that. Also, I'm working through "Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science" by Atul Gawande.
The three words that best describe you? Driven, Optimistic, Passionate
By the end of that two-week mission trip, in which members of her church helped rebuild an orphanage in the port town of Les Cayes, Renata knew her work in Haiti was just beginning.
"It was such an eye-opening experience," Renata said. "You can't imagine people living in conditions like that. It's still shocking, and quite frankly it's the kind of thing that makes me angry."
With three such trips to Haiti now under her belt, the recent Fremd High School graduate is set on becoming a doctor specializing in pediatrics and global health. Her career goal is to improve health care and living conditions in the Caribbean nation she's grown to love.
The Inverness native already is closer to her dream than most 18-year-olds.
She's enrolled in the prestigious Rice/Baylor Medical Scholars Program in Houston, a combined eight-year baccalaureate/MD program. Just 15 "scientifically competent, compassionate and socially conscious" students were offered admission this fall from a pool of 1,469 applicants, according to Rice University.
Renata, a National Merit Scholar, treasures her guaranteed admission to Baylor College of Medicine four years from now, provided she meets certain academic standards. It gives her leeway to explore different disciplines.
"I don't need to pursue the traditional pre-med track, and I already know I'm super passionate about doing global health work on an international level," Renata said. "So instead of loading my schedule with science, I can take courses like French (Haiti's two main languages are French and the related Haitian Creole) and global health technologies."
Renata's interest in Haiti stems from her family's ties to Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Palatine, which began taking mission trips to Haiti five years ago.
During her first trip in 2011, Renata helped rebuild the Children of Israel Orphanage in Les Cayes. The earthquake forced about 30 kids to live in tents on a nearby soccer field for months afterward.
On her second trip, Renata was part of a team that brought computers, laptops and LCD projectors to set up a computer school. She acknowledges those skills aren't a high priority compared to the food and basic sanitation many Haitians still lack, but she said they're vital to landing any family-sustaining job.
"There's essentially no middle class in Haiti, and even with basic writing and math skills, you still have to drive a taxi or sell mangos on the side of the road," Renata said. "People need computer skills to do something more."
Renata said the hope is to expand the school, named the Institute for Information Technology, to include other technical skills such as electrical work, soldering and computer manufacturing.
This past summer, Renata taught English classes and a seminar on Internet usage and Photoshop to students and kids from the orphanage. She also helped lead a Bible school, which by the end was drawing 400 kids to a church without air conditioning despite 95-degree days.
Tim Kaufmann, director of Student Ministry at Prince of Peace in Palatine, said it's been heartening to see Renata form deep relationships and a resolve to continue her service.
"One reason we encourage high school students to go on these mission trips is to help them see the greater need in the world," Kaufmann said. "I'm just thrilled to see how she's using her God-given talents and abilities to help others when there are so many things she could do that would bring her more money and fame."
Renata's commitment to see her work through in Haiti is typical of other areas in her life.
At her church, she spent years being a small group leader for junior high students. And for the last five or so years, Renata volunteered at the Palatine Opportunity Center, which aims to connect underserved residents with needed services and resources. The past two summers there, Renata taught kids about healthy lifestyles using American Cancer Society curriculum.
Renata also played cello in Fremd's orchestra, was on the badminton team and belonged to both National Honor Society and the Tri-M Music Honor Society. She was on the speech team all four years, serving as president her junior and senior years and placing fourth, fifth and sixth in various events at the state competition.
Julie Wettermann said her daughter has always been mindful about what she gets into because Renata doesn't walk away from anything.
"If she says she's going to do something, she does it all the way," Wettermann said. "She's always been incredibly reliable and loyal. It's just part of her character."
Renata reaffirmed that approach during an independent study project her sophomore year at Fremd, when she explored the idea of long-term volunteerism vs. short-term projects.
She conducted a series of interviews with volunteers and coordinators and found that while short-term volunteering is admirable and can help accomplish specific projects, it's not as valuable helping out on a long-term basis.
"When you're really invested in something, you have a better understanding about how your specific insight and skills can benefit an organization," Renata said.
Today, Renata is really invested in helping the many needy residents of Haiti. One moment during a visit there that still sticks out is when Renata helped distribute health kits at a hospital for impoverished patients. She told her mom that, in her head, she was screaming that human beings shouldn't be relegated to such horrible conditions. And yet, despite their plight, the Haitians' spirits remained high.
"They're so joyful, grateful and willing to share the little they do have," Renata said. "I just love the Haitian attitude and the caring they demonstrate."
• Kimberly Pohl wrote today's column. She and Elena Ferrarin always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to email@example.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.