TEWKSBURY — Tewksbury high school seniors Emma Scopa and Emily Chmela are less than $7,000 away from their goal to build a new building for the Embiti Primary School in Kenya. The pair visited the school in July on a vacation with Scopa’s family, and it’s something they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.
When Emma’s parents, Mike and Shannon Scopa, thought of taking their family on a trip to Africa, it was natural for them to also invite Emma’s best friend Chmela. The pair has been friends since the 3rd grade and they usually go on each other’s vacations.
Mike Scopa shared, “We’ve known [Emily’s] family for years… for them to trust us to take their daughter to Africa was a pretty big deal.”
Emily mentioned that her parents were skeptical at first but later agreed that she should go.
In the months before their trip, Emma and Emily wondered if they could see a Kenyan school and bring them school supplies.
“I contacted the safari company and had them suggest a way for us to visit the school,” Mike Scopa said.
Then, they turned their planned Safari day into a day with a 3-hour ride into a village to get to the school.
The list of school supplies they could bring included a few caveats. Emma and Caity Scopa told the Town Crier that the school preferred pencils to pens so that they could erase and reuse the same pieces of paper; and they didn’t want spiral notebooks or anything with batteries which couldn’t be replenished. They packed up two suitcases full of everything they could bring along with their own necessities.
While also getting their Visas and required vaccinations, the girls were learning what to do and what not to do while they were in Africa.
“The vibe we got was that it was going to be kind of crazy and there’d be a lot to be careful of,” Emily Chmela explained.
Looking back, they both said that this was certainly not the case and are both wanting to go back.
Eight people left for Kenya in July: Mike and Shannon Scopa, their oldest daughter Caity and her fiancé Brian, their son Adam, Mike’s 73-year-old father, and Emma and Emily. Over the course of their stay, the group went on a safari in the Masai Mara in Kenya as planned and did some other sightseeing before they went to the school. While they loved the safari, they said that the kids they met at the Embiti Primary School overshadowed everything else.
When they got to the village the school was in, they were shocked to see how different life and culture was from their own.
“Their lives are minimalistic,” Chmela continued. “They live in mud houses, or sticks with leaves on top of them. They sleep on the ground.”
Caity Scopa mentioned seeing an eight-year old leading cows and goats to the market while holding a baby. What was the most surprising was to see that the people in the village, though they had little, they were proud of their culture and excited to share it.
Their school visit was upsetting to say the least.
“It was worse than I expected,” said Emma Scopa.
They described the structure as plywood with a divider in the middle to make separate “buildings.” Chmela included that the floor was dirt and the students learned on wooden benches.
Despite how little they have, Emily and Emma said that these students were so excited to meet them.
“It was a treat for them,” Emma Scopa said. “For us it was so humbling to see how happy they were.”
They also met with the leaders of the school who described how these students walked three or four miles every day just to get to school.
Caity Scopa remembered just how eager all of the students were to learn. She explained that they all learn three languages: their own native tribe language, Swahili, and English.
“The 4th graders were able to speak some English with us.”
The younger kids only knew words like “hello” and “goodbye”. When they were told that the students are currently forced to drop out at age 11, they realized just how much kids in America take their 12 years of school for granted. It was obvious to the group that the school needed more space and more facilities so that they could all keep learning past the fourth grade.
Although Emily and Emma created the fundraising page, it was a family idea that began before they left the village.
“We were talking about setting up a gofundme page as we got back into the truck to leave,” Caity Scopa continued.
Her fiancé, Brian, was the most affected by what they’d seen that day. With all of the resources that they have here, the group wanted to help build another schoolhouse for the kids in Kenya so that their school could have more grades.
As soon as they returned home to Tewksbury, Mike Scopa got to work contacting charities to see exactly how they could turn their hope into a reality.
“The charities are coordinating with a contractor, and they’ve given us an estimate for cost. They’ve already started building pipes and drainage,” he said.
Knowing just how much money the project will take, about $13,000, Scopa says that they’re going to match any donations between now and the end of the fundraiser. Beyond that, they are willing to pay for whatever the fundraiser doesn’t bring in to get the school built.
The building that’s being added to the school thanks to the Scopas and Chmela would allow the students there to learn through the 6th grade.
Emily Chmela said, “Education gives them a chance for a better job and it helps out the whole community because they all share. It’s not just affecting the kids themselves but it’s affecting the whole village.”
While Caity Scopa and her fiancé Brian are considering returning to Kenya after their wedding, Mike Scopa keeps in contact with their safari driver and the charity and he’ll certainly be returning once the school is built.
Emily Chmela and Emma Scopa would also love to go back and see the school and everyone they met on their life-changing trip. They’re both in National Honor Society and on the TMHS soccer team. Besides being on the soccer team, Chmela’s also part of DECA, Best Buddies, and Book Buddies. In her college plans, she wants to study Animal Science, and she’s been accepted to the University of Tennessee and UMass Amherst.
Scopa’s community activities have included volunteering at the MSPCA and coaching a kids’ soccer team. While she’s waiting to hear back from her top school UMass Amherst, she’s been accepted to a few other schools and wants to study elementary education.
If you’d like to donate to this cause, visit https://www.gofundme.com/A-School-For-Every-Kid