Eric Lopez, a Spanish teacher at Nicholas A. Ferri Middle School in Johnston, was taking a stroll through the library one day when he noticed some old, out-of-use iPads. He knew just what to do with them.
Lopez said he asked the librarian about the devices, and she said since the system changed they had become obsolete. He took the opportunity to reach out to Superintendent of Johnston Schools Bernard DiLullo about the possibility of donating the iPads to his organization, Academie Sportive Senegalaise Pour La Relance De L’athletisme – or the Sports Academy for Revival of Track and Field in Senegal.
Lopez grew up in Senegal, running track and participating in the long jump for the national team. He wound up going to a few African championships, adding that the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams were particularly elite.
“I used to be fairly fast,” Lopez said.
Now most of that crew, which ran together from the mid ’70s all the way through the ’90s, have moved to other countries. Lopez left Senegal when he was 28 to move to the United States with his wife, living in Rhode Island before a move to Georgia in 2000.
He went to school there – remembering that his bachelor’s from Senegal only yielded him three credits at Johnson & Wales University – and later earned his master’s from the University of Rhode Island when he and his wife went back to the Ocean State.
He taught at Chariho for nine years before coming to Johnston in 2015.
Lopez returns home every year or so, and on a journey back to Senegal two years ago he noticed his old track in a state of disrepair. He and his friends couldn’t let it stay that way. He recalled how important track and field was as an outlet for himself and his compatriots, and it’s even more vital now.
“The whole track was off,” Lopez said. “It was just terrible, and I was really hurt by that. When I came back, myself and a few of my friends, we spoke about it and we created a WhatsApp group and we started to talk to each other, and then we were so sad about how track and field now in Senegal has no runners going to competitions. Track and field was such the place where we found an adult to talk to. It was a safe place for us to be. It was a safe place for us to express ourselves to sports. The kids don’t have that.”
He added: “Some of the kids don’t have anything to do, but they just come to the stadium and there’s an adult there.”
Lopez said that more than half of Senegal’s population is younger than 20, and a vast majority of children have suffered abuse. He said some even end up dying in attempts to leave Senegal to reach Europe.
“We were like, we’ve got to do something,” Lopez said. “Track helped us. I know track molded me in who I became, and I felt like there’s something we have to do. We worked on it, we created an organization in France because most of the people on our team live in France … We started to put money together and started to help a little bit here and there. When I saw those iPads, I was like, these will help kids – not only the coaches – but also the kids to teach them.”
Lopez asked DiLullo if he could donate the iPads to his organization, and he was informed the matter would have to go through the School Committee. Lopez wrote a letter to the board expressing his desire to send the devices overseas, and the motion was later approved with little discussion during the November meeting.
“Those are going to be tools in the track, but I know they are going to be teaching kids with them,” Lopez said. “We are a small country. Senegal is as big as Delaware, and Senegal has been really ahead – we are a democratic country … Senegal is really into education, they’re very serious, they just don’t have the infrastructure … I usually go home every year, every two years, but I couldn’t go last year, but it’s going to be such a big deal to take these home and send them home and have these kids using them.”
Lopez said the iPads are a “big deal” and that he can’t wait to send them home. He did say, though, that he’s still working on contacting a few teachers who have to log out of their iCloud account. Once that’s complete, the devices are on track to make a difference in Senegal.
“Today, technology is key,” Lopez said. “I always tell that to my students, you’re lucky to be an American. You don’t know, being an American is just like having a degree. You don’t know how serious you have to be because a kid where I’m from, if he has the opportunity of having a table, a chair, a computer? They will live in the school if they have to, just to be successful.”