This summer, a Wharton sophomore is hoping to travel 5,000 miles to confess his love for a girl he met five years ago at summer camp.
Although 15-year-old Luke Kelly fell in love with Stefanie, he was never able to admit his feelings.
Now after years of regret and uncertainty, Kelly plans to visit Stefanie in her hometown of Sao Paolo, Brazil, to tell her how he really feels.
“I will be terrified,” Kelly admitted, “I’m really shy. That’s why it’s taken me five years just to build up the courage to tell her.”
But he takes solace in the fact that he won’t be alone when he makes the anticipated move — two cameras and three friends will follow him, capturing the long drive, emotional struggle and, finally, some sort of resolution.
Bent Button Productions, a student film production group, must raise $30,000 in donations by the end of March to fund the documentary they plan to make out of the journey.
Although Kelly admits some think his story sounds cliched, “this is real life,” he insists. “I don’t want to let her get away.”
Kelly was attending the Julian Krinsky summer program at Haverford College when he met Stefanie.
From the day they met, they were inseparable.
Stefanie and Kelly would attend classes in the morning and spend the rest of the day together, sitting somewhere, just talking. After camp ended, the two went their separate ways: Kelly, to Scranton, Pa., and Stefanie to her home in Brazil.
Despite the distance, Kelly wanted to keep in touch with his new friend, and shortly after leaving the summer program, he sent her an email.
“When I first started, I was always checking my email,” Kelly said. When he saw he had a new email from Stefanie, “I kind of freaked out a little bit, read it and responded immediately.”
However, Kelly soon became accustomed to the slow correspondence, explaining that Stefanie would usually respond only once a month.
For Kelly, the conversations reaffirmed the feelings he had developed for Stefanie at summer camp.
Then, after about two and a half years of this electronic back-and-forth, Kelly sent his last email. A month went by with no response. Then another month. He wouldn’t hear from Stefanie again for two years.
“I always had the feeling that I was never going to see her again,” Kelly said, who knew after the emails stopped coming that he had to let go.
It seemed like fate when, after two years of silence, he received an email from Stefanie about a week after breaking up with his high-school girlfriend.
“I opened my inbox and there was an email from her, and I couldn’t believe it,” Kelly said. “She was coming to New York for a week.”
“I was only able to see her for one day,” Kelly recounted. “I was worried that I would not recognize her anymore, and we would not know each other,” he said, but that wasn’t what he found at all.
The two met just outside Central Park, and for Kelly, “It was like being back at the camp again. We picked up right where we left off.”
After spending a few hours catching up, the two once again parted ways. “Saying goodbye was awful,” Kelly said.
But Kelly knew being together was impossible, as the next day she would travel almost 5,000 miles back to Sao Paolo.
Stefanie and Kelly exchanged numbers, and she promised she would text message him later that day if she had any more free time. Kelly hung around the city but never received a text. Eventually, he drove back home to Scranton.
Although Kelly always had strong feelings for Stefanie, he felt it would be “selfish” to share them with her, as their relationship could never work out with the two living so far apart.
But after that day in New York, the “feelings came back so intense” that the practical voice in Kelly’s head became much smaller than those feelings. He immediately regretted not telling Stefanie how he felt.
“I wish I told her, not because I expected something to come out of it,” he said. “It’s just awful not knowing what is between us. I had the idea of doing what we’re trying to do almost immediately.”
One day at a Bent Button meeting, students were sharing ideas for possible movies.
“There were really serious and sort of dark movies” that were proposed that day, Bent Button cast director and College sophomore Brittney Jones-Ali said. But then Kelly shared his story with the group, which included many of his close friends.
“We laughed at him when he told us,” Engineering junior Jason Merrin, founder of Bent Button and producer of the documentary, said, because it sounded like “such a cliché, I didn’t believe him.”
But soon the group came around as he came clean with all the details. We were “shocked by the poetic aspect of the story, just how real … it sounded,” Jones-Ali said.
“I make fun of Luke a lot … but we all have a situation like that … There’s something really earnest about the fact that he’s hung up on it,” Merrin said.
Merrin pondered the possibility that Stefanie doesn’t feel the same way about Kelly.
“As a friend, that would suck and I would feel terrible,” he said. “Honestly, it would probably be a better ending” to the movie.
Merrin said that Kelly is honest with his feelings and has “really put himself out there,” sharing his story with his friends and now the Penn community, and eventually all who will watch his documentary.
“I felt bad for him when Under the Button put out that piece,” Merrin said, referring to a Jan. 31 blog post that poked fun at the seemingly large amount of money Kelly was soliciting for his project.
Merrin spelled out the reasoning behind the sum of $30,000, estimating travel expenses to be around $25,000 for four people and $10,000 for camera equipment. A standard documentary of this kind would normally cost around $100,000, he said.
The group will travel to Brazil mostly by car, and Kelly himself has worked out the voyage’s logistics. On the way, they will interview people they come across about their own stories about love.
So far, the group has raised only $293 of their $30,000 goal. Because of the way Kickstarter— the funding platform the group is using — works, if the group doesn’t reach that sum by the end of March, they won’t get any of the money.
“Judging by that I feel like we wouldn’t be able to raise the amount,” Jones-Ali said, adding, at least “not right now.”
“It’s disheartening,” Kelly admitted, adding, “I’m getting nervous … I’m trying not to get my hopes too high.”
So what happens if the team doesn’t raise the money to encourage Luke to finally say the words he has wanted to say all these years?
“If I had the money to just fly there by myself and tell her, I wouldn’t end up telling her,” Kelly confessed. ”Alone I’m really shy, but when I’m with my friends I have a lot more courage.”
If the trip doesn’t happen or Kelly loses his nerve, there’s still the possibility Stefanie might move from Brazil to the United States in two years to study neuropsychology, Kelly said.
“Someday she’ll be here,” he said. Whenever that happens, “my feelings will still be the same.”
“No matter what the ending would be, I think it would still make for a really interesting and cool story,” Jones-Ali said. And if he were to get rejected, Kelly would still be “at peace with the fact … that he took a risk.”
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