Discovering Another World in Africa

October 9, 2018

TEWKSBURY -- When Mike Scopa told his family he wanted to take a safari trip in Kenya, no one was thrilled.

The thought of preparing for the overseas trip, not to mention being airborne for nearly a day, did not sound so enjoyable for a group of eight.

But as the family stepped off the landing strip in Nairobi this past July, those doubts about the trip dissipated. Majestic elephants, who were unexpectedly hushed, were just feet away. Mike Scopa’s 10-day trip was shared with his wife, Shannon, his father, Ralph, and his son, Adam and his daughters Caity and Emma. Emily Chmela, Emma’s best friend of over a decade, and Caity’s fiancé, Brian Perry, also joined the trip.

What was planned to be a family vacation changed when Emma and Emily, both 17-year-old seniors at Tewksbury Memorial High School, asked if they could bring school supplies for students in need as part of their National Honor Society service hours. They filled two suitcases with things like erasers, hand-held pencil sharpeners, solar-powered calculators, compasses, pencils and more.

“We knew we were going to visit a school, but I don’t think they really knew the impact it would have on them,” Mike Scopa said.

The safari company helped the family choose a school. One of their guides and drivers, a Kenyan man named Joel, suggested the Embiti Primary school, located about 150 miles away from Nairobi near the Tanzania border. Before heading to the school, they visited the Maasai Mara village.

When they pulled up to the school, Emily said she immediately noticed little, excited heads peeping out the classroom door.

“None of them really knew English but they were just so happy to see people. They were all giving hugs and taking pictures with all of us,” she said. “We were all just standing there, and they all started grouping together and we were like, what’s going on. They started singing their little songs they learned in class. It was so sweet.”

The kids were friendly, polite and pleasant, but the family could not help but notice the school’s condition. Plywood or corrugated metal separated classrooms. The bathroom was simply a cement building with two holes in the ground and no running water. And their school supplies were worn. Pencils were used to the stub and because of the limited supplies, the writings in their notebooks were erased and reused. Kids as young as 4 and 5 years old, walked miles to school, which is why they brought compasses. Nevertheless, they said these children were eager to learn and show off their knowledge.

But what was most alarming was that the school only served students up to fourth grade. There simply was not enough space for all the children who wanted to learn.

“The teacher told me that if they have to choose between educating the young children and the older children, due to space constraints, they’re going to educate the younger children, because then at least they will learn how to read and how to write and how to do math and some English,” Shannon Scopa said. “And they figure they will have some skills, rather than not have any education at all.”

The truck ride back from the school was a pensive one. Emma and Emily began talking about how they could help these students beyond donating supplies. They later came up with the idea to raise funds to construct another building for the Embiti Primary School.

“After we left, we were like, ‘wow,’” Emma said. “It’s not something I expected to come out doing.”

Upon their return from the trip, they launched a GoFundMe campaign with the goal of $14,000. In a month, the campaign has raised more than $3,500.

“For us, it’s definitely put it into perspective how much we don’t realize how lucky we are,” Emily said. “It was kind of humbling to see how one thing so simple to us is a huge thing for them.”

Mike and Shannon Scopa helped facilitate the girls’ goal to raise the money, but said the idea was all theirs. Shannon Scopa said she can speak both for herself and Emily’s mother when she reflected on their drive to give back.

“We are very proud of them and both of us have tried since they were babies to instill kindness and compassion and being able to step in and help where you’re able to,” Shannon Scopa said. “We didn’t prod them in this direction, it’s something they really thought about and decided they wanted to do.”

Visit the GoFundMe campaign at www.gofundme.com/A-School-For-Every-Kid .

Follow Kori Tuitt on Twitter @KoriTuitt.