Since October 2015 when he arrived in the U.S., Awomah has had many first-time experiences—it’s the first time he has traveled outside of his home country of Africa, his first time riding in an airplane or actually ever seeing one, first time trying to surf, and first time learning to play the piano. Awomah has an infectious smile that rarely leaves his face and he seems to now approach life with a childlike wonder paired with wisdom beyond his 17 years.
Awomah was injured as an infant when he fell into a fire pit used for cooking. Doctors in his village bandaged his burns, but other than that he received little treatment for his injuries. Undergoing a one-year treatment plan and eight surgeries at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, he has received a prosthetic eye and a new eyelid, as well as hand and arm reconstruction. Prior to his life-altering surgery, his right hand and arm were underdeveloped and fused together as a result of the burns, making them unusable. His face was discolored by scarring, his hair partially missing and his ear was disfigured.
“I can never thank enough the doctors, surgeons, organizations and people who have helped me,” says Awomah. “They helped bring back my joy.”
Now that most of the reconstructive surgery is complete and he can physically do what most teens can do, he is concentrating on his studies through the El Segundo Unified School District. Since his previous education was not comparably transferable to the U.S. public school system, Arena High School’s alternative education design provides the perfect solution for getting Awomah up to speed with the goal of transferring to El Segundo High School in the future.
Arena High School is designed to provide an online learning environment for students, with customized needs and life goals, intent on accelerated learning, credit recovery, health issues, dual enrollment or those simply looking for a smaller school setting while ensuring a curriculum encompassing differentiated instruction to meet individual needs.
“To watch the approach Jespa takes to life and new experiences is remarkable,” said Ron Roebuck, Arena High School teacher. “He has accomplished a lot in a very short time. I’m impressed with his work ethic, his positive and grateful attitude every day, and his willingness to talk about what he has gone through.” In fact, Awomah’s teachers say they and the other students learn from him through the experiences he shares about living in the small village of Babanki in Bamenda, Cameroon.
Awomah has a passion for learning and is currently working at a tenth grade level. As one of twelve children in his family, he is among the first of his siblings to go this far with his education. He has completed eight classes at Arena High School receiving all As and Bs. He takes yoga and gardening as his electives and has been introduced to art for the first time. He loves gardening and likes to spend extra time in the school’s garden because he says it “reminds him of home,” where farming is a life staple and planting is a main food source for his family. “At home, I plant with my brothers and sisters,” says Awomah. “I love growing things. I like learning about all the new things here that you can plant that we don’t have in Cameroon.”
Since his goal is to attend college, Awomah is thankful for the education he is receiving in the United States. In Cameroon, school is a distance of two hours each way and there are no computers. “I like Arena High School. The teachers and the students are all very nice,” he says. “My teachers are amazing and they help when things are difficult for me to understand. They laugh with me.” He would like to attend a University of California school and dreams of becoming either a pilot or a surgeon. “Doctors are great role models. I want to help others like me as a surgeon,” he said.
Awomah lives in El Segundo with Plant A Seed founder Ruth Akumbu and her sister Rebecca, who have taken on his guardianship. Plant A Seed (plantaseedafrica.org), a nonprofit organization that provides help to people living in Third World villages in Cameroon, had been trying for years to raise funds for Awomah’s medical treatment when hospital officials discovered his story on Facebook. Torrance Memorial Medical Center then decided to partner with the Children’s Burn Foundation to provide the more than $1 million in medical treatment.
“It's hard to believe this year has flown by so fast,” said Akumbu in a local newspaper story. “A little over a year ago, Jespa arrived in the U.S. as a quiet young boy, badly wounded and unable to use his right arm. Now, thanks to the support of Torrance Memorial Hospital and the Children’s Burn Foundation, he's an outgoing teenager who can ride a bike and play basketball. He's even learning piano as part of his therapy.”
Awomah’s grateful and openly friendly nature is apparent to all who meet him. He says he is always happy and he likes to look at himself in the mirror now. When asked how he approaches people that might still be apprehensive of his appearance, he simply says, “I say ‘hello’ to them anyway. Just be who you are and do what you want to do.” For now, what he wants to do is continue his high school education and apply to colleges in California to possibly major in science or biology.
“If you’ve met Jespa, you know that he is an amazing young man. His smile in infectious and we know that he has the potential to go on to do amazing things. We want to give him all of the opportunities we can,” said Akumbu.
For more information about Arena High School, please visit ESUSD website at www.elsegundousd.net.
Arena High School student Jespa Awomah from Cameroon in the school’s garden that he helps tend. Awomah, who as an infant was badly burned in an accident, spent the last year receiving reconstructive procedures at Torrance Memorial Medical Center made possible through El Segundo nonprofit Plant A Seed.
About the El Segundo Unified School District
The El Segundo Unified School District (ESUSD) was established in 1912 to serve all of the residents living in the City of El Segundo and covers the western part of the city. ESUSD consists of six schools including the Eagle’s Nest Preschool, Richmond Street and Center Street Elementary Schools, El Segundo Middle School, El Segundo High School and the Arena/Virtual High School, as well as partnerships with the South Bay Adult School and California Regional Occupational Center (SoCal ROC).