WEST ENGLEWOOD — Before becoming alderman of the 15th Ward, Raymond Lopez worked as a skycap for Southwest Airlines for 12 years.
Now that connection is helping the championship chess team at Earle STEM Academy get to Nashville for the U.S. Chess Federation's SuperNationals Tournament, the largest chess tournament in the world that's held every four years.
The airline has committed to donating 10 round-trip tickets to the team, Lopez said, but they still need help raising money to cover other expenses like meals. They leave for the tournament Wednesday; the tournament runs May 12-14.
"Thankfully, I was able to use my relationship with Southwest Airlines to get their airfare donated round- trip," Lopez said. "Now we need to ensure the rest of their needs are met. I want their success to repeat and inspire more students in West Englewood, the ward and beyond."
The ticket donation was valued at $4,000.
"I believe it is important to not only highlight their achievements in deed, but also put our actions behind it," Lopez said. "Being proud of them is meaningless if we are not willing to commit ourselves as leaders to their continued success."
Dan Landson, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines, said the students from Earle, at 2040 W. 62nd St., will be treated to a "real VIP experience."
"We’re honored and humbled to welcome the Earle STEM Academy winning chess team aboard a Southwest Airlines flight," Landson said in a prepared statement. "When we first learned about the chess team, we wanted to honor their achievement by providing much-needed transportation."
Team coach Joseph Ocol, who's also a math teacher, will travel with seven students, including team captain Tamya Fultz, who won first place in individual chess by achieving a perfect score with no losses in the Chicago Public Schools' Academic Chess South Conference Playoffs in March.
"We do not want to disappoint anyone thinking that this will be all about playing chess," Ocol said.
The students will spend their free time practicing math and reading in preparation for the NWEA standardized exams that all students take.
"The SuperNationals will be more about hard work for the kids because they are motivated to work harder and do more, promising that they will make CPS, our school, our school principal, the Englewood community and Ald. Lopez proud of them — not only in their chess performance but more importantly in their academics and their desire to help the Englewood community," Ocal said.
The team took third place overall in the South Conference Playoffs in March.
In April 2016, Ocol's all-girls chess team took home a national championship trophy in an all-girls tournament in Chicago. The team competed against 64 schools from across the country and was one of only two African-American teams. The win was the first national championship team trophy for the school.
The team has gained national acclaim for its success. Some players got the chance to greet and shake hands with President Barack Obama when he was in Chicago in October.