Coby Schoffman didn’t usher in his 21st birthday by having his first legal drink at an American bar.
Instead he was on his way to Uganda to volunteer his time at a school where many students have lost their parents and where resources like pencils and paper, let alone computer equipment, are hard to come by.
For Schoffman, who graduated from Santa Monica High School in 2011, it was an opportunity to experience firsthand the struggles of the developing world and make a tangible difference in a place where he felt he could have an immediate impact.
“There are no toilets, no showers, and electricity comes and goes,” he said of Kikaaya College and Vocational School. “Being blessed with the education I had growing up in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, I look back and, with experiences like this, you can’t even relate it.
“Half of the school is orphan students, so they live on the school compound year-round. They have such motivation and drive. They’re just as hard-working as what you’ll find in any other high school. But they lack basic, basic, basic scholastic materials. … The level of poverty is unimaginable.”
The experience inspired Schoffman to launch The Nation Foundation, a recently founded nonprofit that aims to support schools in the developing world.
Along with fellow Samohi alumnus and current Santa Monica College student Jesse Vasquez, Schoffman has raised more than $15,000 to improve the learning conditions at the Uganda school where he volunteered for two months in 2014.
The Nation Foundation plans to extend its reach into Tanzania this summer. Schoffman said it’s his goal to bring materials and develop infrastructure at one school in the developing world each year.
Schoffman’s path into the nonprofit world started in college at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, where he studied conflict resolution and counter-terrorism. During a semester exchange program in Turkey, he came across a volunteer database and responded to a posting about an opportunity at Kikaaya. That led to email correspondence with the school’s director, who later met him at the airport in Entebbe.
“You do a lot of reading and study, but you don’t get the hands-on grasp of exactly what you’re studying,” Schoffman said of his college coursework. “It was one thing to understand in the classroom, but it was entirely another to have an experience where I wouldn’t be surrounded by other volunteers or Western technologies or based on an agenda that’s implemented by the West.”
During his time at Kikaaya, Schoffman helped to renovate school facilities and led a computer science class. The students speak and learn in English, he said.
Schoffman also introduced basketball to the school community, gathering materials from Kampala to build a makeshift hoop on campus. He showed them how to run layup lines and taught them the three-man weave.
After his stint in Uganda, Schoffman returned to Santa Monica to form his nonprofit before going back to Israel to finish his undergraduate studies.
And his work, he said, is just beginning.
“It’s literally brick-by-brick,” he said.
For more information about Schoffman’s organization, visit nation-foundation.org.