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Large family, larger challenges

Oldest of 14 kids, Emory sophomore and scholarship winner, 21, worked full time for three years to help family while father recovered from severe injury.

LILBURN - When Rachel Wexel was 5, she went to her mother and asked: "Mommy, will I always have as many siblings as I am years old?"

Already, she had five younger brothers and sisters. And now, at the age of 21, she has 13.

Her large family has always served as a support system, but never more than when her father was severely injured.

Before then, Wexel had known exactly what she wanted. Like all of her siblings, she was home-schooled. She wanted to work ahead and graduate high school by age 16, go to college and medical school, and eventually become a doctor.

Her dreams dissolved in the winter of 2000, when her father was struck by a heavy piece of wood while he was working on shelving. A business owner and the family's primary breadwinner, he suddenly could no longer walk or speak regularly, and was diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury.

After taking six months off from schooling, Wexel finished her senior year while driving her father around, her textbooks in the back seat. She and her oldest siblings helped him finish his architecture and construction projects, then closed out his business.

But ultimately, Wexel's story is not one of tragedy but of triumph. After working full time for three years to support her family, she got into her dream school: Emory University. She is now a rising sophomore there in the pre-med program and majoring in Spanish.

She wrote in her application essay about the challenges she faced after her father's accident and how he ultimately affected her decision to apply.

"My father helped by encouraging me to go ahead and try to become a doctor, because he says it is better to shoot for the stars and hit the moon than it is to aim lower than your potential," she wrote.

On Thursday, Wexel accepted a scholarship check from Chick-fil-A. The prestigious S. Truett Cathy Scholarship award was only given to 25 students across the country. She also won a second scholarship from the restaurant chain.

Her entire family joined her for the check ceremony, which was held at the Chick-fil-A in Lilburn where she worked for three years. Now three of her sisters and one of her brothers work there. The youngest of the family gathered excitedly around her congratulatory cakes and the cow mascot, while the older ones praised Rachel, their big sister. The full text of her Emory application essay hung on the wall of Chick-fil-A.

"I cried and I know the whole story. It was very moving, very wonderful," said her 20-year-old sister Naomi Wexel, a manager at the Chick-fil-A.

Amos Rice, now a senior buyer for the fast-food chain, has known Wexel since he started coming into Chick-fil-A as one of her customers. He said people hardly notice the workers behind the counter, but he immediately saw her potential.

"I didn't know her and I knew she was a leader," Rice said. "I think, because of being from a big family, she had to step up and do things that other parents usually do for their kids."

At the check ceremony, the Wexels gathered for a group portrait. Of the 14 children, 13 of them have natural blond hair, including the newest addition, 5-month-old Analise.

Her parents have gotten used to curious looks and questions when the family goes out together: "Are they all yours? Are you Catholic or Mormon? Are there any twins?"

(The answers to those, incidentally, are: Yes, no, and "Nope, all single births.")

But the Wexels beam when they talk about their family, which puts the "Brady Bunch" to shame, even as they keep one eye out to make sure the little ones are OK.

"When we got married, we looked at children as a blessing. And I didn't know we'd have 14 of them, but I wouldn't trade them for the world," said their mother, Laurie Wexel.

For the Wexels, everything has been a "family enterprise." The older kids always helped take care of the younger ones and assisted them in their home-schooling studies. And they all worked after their father's accident to help keep them afloat.

Rachel Wexel started at a Latino supermarket, where she started to pick up Spanish while talking to the customers. It was a skill she continued to improve while she was at Chick-fil-A. Now she can converse easily with Spanish speakers.

Her experiences have helped Rachel greatly appreciate other cultures. At Emory, she is a member of the Latino Student Organization, on the executive board of the Indian Cultural Exchange, a member of the Tangueros (tango) club and an Orientation Leader for incoming freshmen. She hopes to study abroad in Argentina as a junior.

It was an adjustment going back to school after three years of working full time. Wexel moved into a freshman dorm, where most of the other girls were 17 or 18, and she was older than her resident adviser. But Wexel remains positive about the years she spent helping her family.

"Everything happens for a reason. I mean, yes, I would've liked to have started earlier, especially with all the years I'll have to be in school. But the life experience I've already had has and will help me in college and in everything else," Wexel said.

For more information on the Wexel family, visit their Web site at www.thewexel15.com.