Marysville News

Family, exchange student have special bond

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Sylvie Gerszt, 16, (right) poses for a portrait with Linda Wilms and her daughter, Alissa, at their home in Marysville. Gerszt has been living with the family as a foreign exchange student since August.

High school graduation is the end of a journey for many families. For one Marysville couple, the trip took an unexpected detour after a spontaneous decision last summer was followed by a health crisis in the fall.

In many ways, for Linda Wilms, 45, a T-shirt changed the course of her life.

One day last summer, she and her husband, Mike, saw a man at the Farmhouse Ice Cream Shop wearing a shirt that read, "Ask me about hosting an exchange student." So they did.

They decided to become a host family and within a month, learned they would be joined by 16-year-old Sylvie Gerszt from the Netherlands.

"It was very spontaneous, very spur-of-the-moment. We jumped in without too much thought," Wilms said.

The Wilmses have an 11-year-old daughter, Alissa, who is about to finish fourth grade. She was very excited about getting a new big sister.

"Alissa had been talking and suggesting on a frequent basis we do fostering," Wilms said. "She got her sister, but in a little bit different way than she thought."

Gerszt arrived Aug. 3.

"I was very nervous. I was excited because everything was new. Mike and Linda were people I had never met in my life, and I was going to live with them," Gerszt said. "What if they don't like me? What if I do something weird?"

As it turned out, Wilms said, they liked Gerszt just fine. Everything was going well until unrelenting pain sent Wilms to the emergency room in October.

A night in the hospital and a subsequent trip to specialists resulted in Wilms having a hysterectomy due to endometriosis. But during the surgery, doctors found something else.

On Nov. 3, Wilms learned she had ovarian cancer.

"They caught it early," she said.

A battle with cancer loomed, so the Wilmses talked with Gerszt and asked if she wanted to move to a different host family. Gerszt refused the offer. She wanted to stay.

"This is my home. Mike and Linda and Alissa are my family. I'm not going to just leave them," Gerszt said. "I didn't want to go to a different home and get adjusted. But more than anything, I wanted to stay with them as long as possible."

Wilms was scheduled to undergo five chemotherapy treatments. It turned out having Gerszt in the house was a blessing.

"There have been times when we were late getting home from chemo, and she's been here for Alissa," Wilms said. "It's really helped us."

Gerszt was undaunted by Wilms' diagnosis, perhaps in part because her mother had undergone chemotherapy to treat multiple sclerosis several years earlier.

Gerszt's mother wanted to make sure Wilms was OK about keeping Gerszt as she went through treatment.

"I think she was more concerned about me not being up to it," Wilms said. "She didn't express any concerns about Sylvie."

"Linda stayed so positive through it. She never really complained about anything," Gerszt said. "It taught me to be grateful for what you already have and don't get too negative about what's going on."

Gerszt's calm in the storm is just one aspect of her character. At 16, she was classified as a senior because she skipped several grades in the Netherlands before coming to the United States.

On May 24, she graduated from Marysville High School magna cum laude, which requires a 3.75 to 3.99 grade point average.

At MHS, Gerszt earned a varsity letter in cross country and participated in book club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and the Marysville Grace Church youth group. In the Netherlands, she participates in judo, gymnastics and skiing.

Wilms is now cancer-free and in the monitoring stage of recovery. Seeing Gerszt graduate made her proud, and she called the year "successful."

Gerszt will return home June 19. She said would like to get a license to fly a glider plane, resume guitar lessons, finish her last year of high school in the Netherlands and spend time with her friends.

"If we had a choice, we'd keep her. But her mom is excited to have her back as soon as possible," Wilms said.

"I'm going to miss Mike and Linda and so many friends I've made," Gerszt said. "I feel like, if I had my family here and my friends here, I'd rather stay here."