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Tewksbury Teens Seeking To Build A Brighter Future For Hundreds Of African Children

Dec 19, 2018 02:37AM ● By Bill Gilman

Emma Scopa and Emily Chmela stand with some of the women of the village of Maasai Mara, Kenya.(Mike Scopa photo)

What would you do if you went on vacation and your perception of the world changed forever?
What would you do if you saw things you could never unsee, learned truths you could never forget and met people that would occupy a permanent place in your heart and mind?
If you were Tewksbury High seniors Emma Scopa and Emily Chmela, you would feel called to action and you would commit yourselves to a project that could change the destinies of young people half-a-world away for years to come.
Emma and Emily are behind a GoFundMe Page called "A School For Every Kid." The goal of the campaign is to raise at least $13,000, the amount needed to build an additional school building for the Embiiti Primary School in Maasai Mara, Kenya.
According to the girls, the school draws students from several area villages, with some students having to walk miles every day to attend classes. Presently, the school has just two buildings, one serving 1st and 2nd grade students and the other serving 3rd and 4th graders. Because of the limited resources, 4th grade is the limit of the education for a vast majority of the children in that region of Kenya.
The third building would increase classroom space for the Embiti Primary School by 50 percent and would allow the school to offer education at the 5th and 6th grade level for the first time.
The idea for funding a new school building in Maasai Mara had its genesis over the summer, when Mike Scopa and his wife Shannon, led their family on the vacation of a lifetime -- a 10-day African photo safari in Kenya and Tanzania. The group included Scopa's father, Ralph, son, Adam, daughter, Caity and Caity's fiancee, Brian Perry. Emma invited her best friend, Emily, as the pair have accompanied each other's families on vacations for several years.
But this was not a typical trip  After all, it involved a journey of nearly 7,200 miles, more than 16 hours by air. And while Kenya is historically tourist-friendly, its neighbors, such as Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda are significantly less so.
"We were all a little worried at first. (Emily) wasn't going to come, originally," said Emma. "It was really last minute."
"Yeah, at first my parents were like, 'no'," said Emily. "But then we were having breakfast before a college visit and my mother said, 'you should go to Africa. You'll never have a chance like this again.'"
According to Mike Scopa, the workup to the trip required six months of detailed preparations, using a reputable agency. These included Visas for each member of the group and numerous vaccinations.
Packing for the trip was also a challenge, as they teens were not just packing for themselves. 
"Emma was doing a project for National Honor Society, she was bringing a bunch of school supplies for the kids because they said they were in need of stuff," said Emily, who decided to join her friend in the effort. "So we packed up a couple of suitcases full of supplies to bring over there to help them out."
Rather than just dropping off the supplies with a charity and continuing with their trip, Emma and Emily wanted to personally deliver the supplies to a local school.
The safari company Mike Scopa was working though connected the group with the Embiiti Primary School in Maasai Mara.
"It was a school that our driver knew was more in need than some of the others," said Scopa. "So, on the second day, we took a three-hour drive over to the village to visit the school."
What the family encountered when they arrived in Maasai Mara opened their eyes to a people and a culture that were, in many ways, primitive, yet highly developed in terms of their views of life, family and the world they live in.
"It was a real learning experience because the way they live is so much different than the way we do," said Emily.
One thing that stood out about the community was the roles of women and men. Women built the homes (generally simple huts built from sod), while the men cared for the children from the time they were weened. Members of the Scopa group were also struck by how open and hospitable the villagers were to visitors.
"It was really cool. They were all extremely friendly and welcoming. It was nice to get that kind of greeting," said Emily.
The residents of the village were eager to share their culture with the American visitors, including music, dance, fashion and food.
When Emma, Emily and their group made their way to the school itself, the spartan conditions and limited resources for students and teachers confirmed their desire to help.
"I think we knew what to expect but I don't think we knew it would be THAT much of what we thought, if that makes sense," said Emma. "We knew the stigma around African schools but we didn't know it would be that bad."
What they saw was two simple, concrete buildings, each divided into two rooms, with students from one grade in each of the room. The buildings lacked indoor plumbing and the floors were dirt. Paper is at such a premium that students fill a notebook and then go back and erase what they have written in order to use the same notebook again.
"It was really upsetting to see, these kids sitting in these, basically, shacks," said Emma. "And it's so hot in there."
"Dirt floors and metal plates for walls. Once you see it in front of you, it really puts into perspective how lucky we are to have what we have," added Emily, whose career goal is to be a veterinarian.
But they heard no complaints from any of the students, some of whom had to walk three or four miles every day from surrounding villages to attend classes.
"(The students) are just so happy," said Emma. "they're all so happy to be there and learn, they were all so happy to see us. They were just so grateful for what they had. It was amazing to see."
The students also showed tremendous gratitude for the gifts the girls brought, which included, pens, pencils, markers, paper, compasses, solar powered calculators, erasers and more.
How much stuff? The group had to buy an extra seat on their connecting flight in order to be able to check the extra luggage.
Initially, Emma and Emily had intended to simply keep sending supplies to the Embiiti Primary School but during their visit, they learned a harsh fact of life for the children that caused them to change their focus. They learned that because of having just two buildings, the students' had to stop their education at 4th grade. It was a truth that didn't set well with the Tewksbkury teens.
"It's not fair that you have to stop going to school just because there isn't enough space," said Emma.
During the three-hour return drive, the conversation was dominated by talk of the school, its needs and the next course of action for the girls. The issue was moved to the back-burner during the rest of the vacation, which did prove to be everything Mike Scopa and his family had hoped for. There were up-close encounters with a wide array of wild animals, including lions, elephants and giraffes. There were plenty of opportunities to relax, recreate and enjoy the unique culture and climate of Kenya and Tanzania.
But the memories of the Embiiti Primary School remained deeply ingrained in the minds and hearts of the group, especially Emily and Emma. And once they returned to the United States, they began putting plans together to make a lasting impact on the lives of the students of Maasai Mara.
"The minute they got on the truck they wanted to do this," said Scopa. "They asked the tour bus driver to talk to the headmaster of the school about the logistics. They hooked us up with a local charity that handles projects like this. And then I connected it with a charity here in the U.S. so that when people gave donations they would get a (tax deduction receipt)."
The centerpiece of the fundraising effort is the GoFundMe Page, which has already seen more than $5,000 in donations.
"(The fundraising) kind of started about a month after we got back, after we got everything settled with the (logistics with the) school," said Emma, who plans to become an elementary school teacher.
The goal is at least $13,000, with a hope for construction to begin at the start of 2019, before the rainy season sets in.
"We're still in contact with the two charities that are dealing with the local contractors and they are all set to go, as soon as the money is there," said Scopa.
The girls are hoping that the holiday season spurs a spike in donations for the project. To that end, Scopa and his wife have made a personal commitment to the project.
"The Scopa family will match all donations from now through the end of year," he said.
For more information on Emily, Emma and their "A School For Every Kid" project, you can watch the brief video below.
To make a donation to their fundraising efforts, click here to go to the "A School For Every Kid" GoFundMe page.

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