How a stranger's plea turned into a friendship and a publishing enterprise

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Ben Taylor traveled 6,500 miles to confront the West African man who tried to scam him on the internet, although confront probably isn't the right word. Joel Willie says scam isn't the right word either. He says he was just looking to make a friend.

"The person got to be my friend before ... before they can give me some money, yeah," Joel said.

Armed with an old dinosaur phone, Joel used to send Facebook messages to strangers, hoping to find some way someone would help him out of poverty. I asked how desperate he was.

"Oh, more than desperate, Steve, because I'm a father of seven," Joel said. "To feed the kids, a lot of things run into your mind."

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Ben Taylor decided to respond to a suspicious message he got online CBS News

His plea read: "My name is Joel from Liberia, West Africa. I need some assistance from you. Business or financial assistance that will help empower me." 

No one responded, until one of those messages made its way to a marketing manager from Ogden, Utah, named Ben Taylor, who answered, but had no intention of helping.

What life is like in Liberia

"I've gotten these types of messages before," said Ben. "So when I got it, I just figured here's another one of those scams, and so I wanted to teach them a lesson because you don't just mess with people and get away with it."

Ben wrote back with a lie. He told Joel he was in the photography business, and if Joel wanted to be his partner he should go around Liberia and take pretty pictures. He never expected Joel would actually do it.

"I'm starting to see that he's a real guy, who's living in a country with real poverty," Ben said. "But then I thought, well, what if I made just a collection of all these photos and I put them together in little booklets and I sold it online to whoever was interested in the story or whoever was just interested in helping a guy out."

The booklet, titled "By D Grace of God" -- a Joel catchphrase -- has sold 5,000 books and forged a most unusual friendship. Until the moment the two men met, they barely even talked on the phone.

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Ben Taylor (l), Joel Willie (c), Steve Hartman (r) CBS News

Now they're discussing what's next for this publishing enterprise they've stumbled into. Some of the profits have already gone toward Joel's basic needs, like keeping rain out of his home. But most of the money will be reinvested in the community.

Liberia is one of the poorest nations in the world. Half the country survives on less than $2 a day, and because need is everywhere, Ben and Joel started with the most vulnerable. Over the last few months, they have supplied five different schools with book bags, notebooks and other necessities.  

"Joel had to do a lot of work to make it happen," Ben said.

They're also granting microloans to young entrepreneurs in Joel's neighborhood, and have plans to do much more. Ben is no longer the cynic who started all this.

"That's just not me," he said. "I've changed. I set out to embarrass a guy. I ended up helping a guy. I would much rather continue to help people. You feel good when you help others."

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Joel Willie CBS News

And as for Joel, he says he's changed too. Although he still has to support his wife and seven kids on what most of us spend at Starbucks, Joel says he's OK using much of the money to help others. In fact, he says the opportunity to be charitable may be the best thing to come from this.

"I used to receive," Joel said. "I'm the one who's giving now, and it's better to give than to always receive. I hoped that one day I could come from nobody to somebody, I could come from zero to be a hero."

Just because a person is poor doesn't mean they're not rich in character. In fact, many are great humanitarians, just waiting on the means.

  • Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.