When school supplies went on sale, for a brief moment, Jolene Kopena had an urge to stock up on a few things. Then it hit her – no more pencils, no more books, no more students’ dirty looks for her.
Kopena retired at the end of the last school year after a 35-year career with Genoa Schools, where she had taught English, German and most recently, Spanish. Before coming to Genoa, she had taught in Continental Schools.
Deciding to retire was bittersweet. “Part of it was that my boys, Jeremy and Josh, were graduating and I thought it would be a good time for me to move on as well,” she said.
The Genoa-area travelers on the beach in Jaco, Costa Rica, included (front from left) Todd
Her tenure at Genoa was not only rewarding – it was a real trip, literally as well as figuratively. During her tenure, Kopena accompanied Genoa students on 20 trips abroad where they could not only use their foreign language skills but also experience other cultures firsthand.
“Actually it would have been 21, except there was one time we were scheduled to go to Germany and Switzerland, and we had to postpone the trip because there had been bombs set off in the Frankfort Airport,” she said.
“For a while, we were going every year, but then it became every other year once I had my twins,” Kopena said.
“I remember the first time I traveled after I had them – they were 2 years old – we were in London and everyone was looking up at the TV screen and the kids started saying ‘I want to go call home.’ They were watching news reports about the tornado hitting Davis-Besse.”
Many of the trips included trips to London, Paris along with Madrid. “Even though I wanted them to use their Spanish, for some of them, it might be the only time they would ever be able to go to Europe, so I wanted them to visit other major cities as well.
“Invariably, the kids wanted to see the Eiffel Tower,” she said. “They’d get so excited and start taking pictures when they just saw a little tip of it…I told them ‘just wait until you’re up close.’ They were never disappointed.”
Despite meticulous planning, sometimes there were glitches, but nothing the Genoa travelers couldn’t overcome.
“One time, I took a small group of five girls – that was the year that President Reagan died, and the day we left, they were moving his body,” Kopena recalled. “Little did I know that all air traffic was stopped until they got his body to Washington, D.C.”
To their dismay the group’s flight to Atlanta was delayed and then canceled. “Luckily, as a small group, we were able to finagle six seats on Air France and we only missed part of a day of our trip, which wasn’t too bad.”
The travelers went on to Rome and Florence and then Genoa (pronounced GEN oh a) before taking a ship to Barcelona – only their luggage was still with the original air carrier.
“We had no luggage for an entire week,” she said. “Luckily the girls had some things in their carry-ons, and we washed some things at night. Eventually, we got our luggage and the girls were so excited because they still had a luggage full of clean clothes.”
“One time we went to Rome in June – it was always more crowded when we traveled in the summer versus spring break – and one girl said, ‘I think there are more people in Rome than there are ants,” Kopena said. “But there are hazards to traveling in the spring too, one time we encountered a snowstorm while we were visiting Germany.”
She was supposed to make a trip to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, but health problems kept her grounded. “My son Jeremy was already signed up to go, and went on the trip, escorted by Heather Sheehy, a parent of a student had accompanied us on trips before,” she said.
“This last year, since it was my sons’ senior year, I asked them where they wanted to go since the trip would be their graduation gift,” she said. “Jeremy wanted to go back to Costa Rica.
“They had been with me to Europe before and had found the trips to be fun but very hectic – there’s so much to do and see. Jeremy suggested Costa Rica because it was very relaxing – it’s all nature,” she said.
The 10-day trip, which was set for June 12, was not school-sponsored because Kopena was to be retired, and the students going had graduated. The entourage of 10 also included some of the students’ friends, one of the moms who had gone on one of Kopena’s a former trips and her son and daughter, who is going to be a sophomore at UT.
Among the stops on the trip were the capital city, San José and La Fortuna, which is known for its beautiful waterfall.
“I book the trips through a company that plans trips for school groups,” Kopena said. “Consequently, we had a really knowledgeable tour guide. He could tell you everything about the plants and animals – I never knew there were that many kinds of hummingbirds.”
The kids also learned other life lessons.
“It was the rainy season and the first night, the tour bus got stuck on the dirt road when we were trying to get back to the hotel,” she recalled. “It was pouring. The kids were pretty worn out – they had been on the bus all day and hadn’t eaten. But they endured and were all cool about it. That’s part of the learning experience.”
The trip included a Saturday morning stop at a small school. “We had taken along some school supplies and some deflated soccer balls from home,” Kopena said. “The kids at this tiny little school, who ranged from very little to about 12 years old, were all dressed up in costumes anxiously awaiting us.
“They had a presentation with dances and then they taught our kids the dance,” she said. “Then our kids played a little soccer with them.
“I think our kids thought it was going to be a boring experience, but they ended up having such a good time – we couldn’t get them back on the bus,” Kopena said.
Now that she’s retired, Kopena said she hopes the Genoa students will still have the opportunity to travel abroad. “I hope someone steps in,” she said.
“The world’s a small place these days and kids need to see that,” she said. “And they have to experience it firsthand.”
“There’s no doubt the trips involve a lot of planning and huge liability, not to mention the cost,” she continued. “Years ago, the Spanish Club did fundraising – I can’t tell you how many car washes we held at Genoa Ford – for extra money that would help pay for extra excursions and incidentals on the trips,” she said. “But the majority of the costs fell on students and their families.
“I always planned the trips way far ahead and for many of the students, the trip or part of it would be a present for graduation, Christmas, etc.,” she added. “And I always reminded the students that they should be very appreciative that their parents allowed them to take such a trip.”