By Laura J. Cummings
By all accounts, Emma Bullock was an unusual teenager. She didn’t gossip about the social misfits—she befriended them.
“Emma was special,” said Tony LaMantia, her former youth pastor at Riverside Church. “She was kind-hearted naturally, and she was very aware of the quiet or shy person in the room.”
Most teens enter a room and try to figure out how to appear “cool,” LaMantia observes. Not Emma: “She didn’t care about being the oddball, being associated with someone who is different. She would walk into the room and see the person no one else saw. But Emma was cool. So, in turn, she made the person who wasn’t cool, cool.
“A lot of kids have this power and don’t realize it,” he said. “Emma set a really good example.”
On Feb. 7, 2021, at age 19, Emma Bullock was killed in an auto accident, but her life echoes through a number of local and global initiatives inspired by her compassion.
“The concept of ‘Emma’s Echo’ came from the realization that Emma’s story didn’t end at her death. Moving forward, her story continues to live through the people she impacted,” LaMantia said.
Becoming a Best Buddy
It’s not easy to transfer to a new high school your senior year. After moving from Massachusetts, one of the first people Haley Marra encountered at Estero High School was Emma Bullock.
“She welcomed me with open arms,” said Marra, who had walked into the Life Skills classroom to inquire about joining Best Buddies.
Emma was a lead officer in the program which creates opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to form friendships with other students at the school.
Emma’s “best buddy” Sohitha (pronounced Zo-hee-ta) was truly one of her dearest friends. Emma and Sohitha would eat lunch together nearly every day, they would text constantly, and they frequently got together over school breaks.
When Marra came to Estero as a senior, Emma welcomed her into her closely guarded friendship with Sohitha, quickly forming a Best Buddies trio.
“Sonic was our thing,” Marra said of their favorite fast food fix for ice cream.
They took silly selfies together, and laughed a lot. When Emma went off to the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa, it was hard on Sohitha, but Marra was still in town attending Florida Gulf Coast University. And the three continued to talk, text and get together frequently. No one but God knew how significant it would be that Marra had entered this special friendship with Emma and her best buddy.
“Sohitha tells me all the time how she misses Emma. Nobody could ever, ever replace Emma,” Marra said. “But we do all the same things. We still go to Sonic and get ice cream.”
In April 2021, Marra helped organize the Best Buddies Friendship Walk at Miromar Outlets in honor of Bullock. Emma’s Echo, a team of Emma’s family and friends, was the top fundraiser, bringing in nearly $9,000 for Best Buddies Southwest Florida.
Now Marra has been nominated for . This month, she organized a golf fundraiser at Old Corkscrew Golf Course. The Champion of the Year recipient will be announced at the organization’s annual gala on Oct. 22.
“Everything I do from this point forward is for Emma,” said Marra, who is studying special education at FGCU and plans to become an occupational therapist. “Emma was the light when you walk into any room. She saw the good in everyone.”
Gina Sheehey, former Life Skills teacher at Estero High School, remembers Emma as “full of love, laughter and acceptance.”
“Emma was dedicated to others her entire short life,” Sheehey recalled. “At the seniors’ last day party, Emma gave me a beautiful card that I framed long before her accident. It meant the world to me because she was thanking me for having a beautiful heart. But she had the most beautiful heart of all!”
Loving All the Children of the World
No one had to push Emma to get involved with Best Buddies or to sign up for a mission trip.
“She always gravitated to these kids that had special needs or were living on the fringes. She had a passion for making them feel included,” said her dad, Bart Bullock.
It was no surprise when Emma beamed at the chance to travel to Cristo Rey, Nicaragua, with her youth group to extend kindness—and much needed shoes—to the barefoot children who scavenged the garbage dumps for daily survival.
Although she was shocked by the poverty she witnessed, she fell in love with the people and the beautiful country.
“Nicaragua was one of her favorite places in the world,” said her mom, Sherry.
Emma wanted her family to sponsor a child there in partnership with the Fort Myers, faith-based organization . But it couldn’t be just any child: “She took the whole week to sort of choose a child that she could bond with. She waited to find someone who was unwanted—a child who was not chosen by others,” Bart said.
One of her parents’ favorite photos captures a moment where Emma is smiling wide as she dances with a group of happy Nicaraguan children.
“She’s clearly full of joy. I mean, they’re in the midst of extreme poverty, but they’re singing and dancing,” Bart marveled.
Emma and her good friend Madison Drovdlic led the children’s worship time together in Nicaragua and on a later trip to Bolivia.
“She would go over to kids who were sitting alone and dance with them, just being goofy and having a good time,” Drovdlic recalled. “She didn’t speak Spanish super well, but it didn’t matter because she was so lovable, and she made the kids feel loved as well.”
In 2019, following Emma’s high school graduation, her entire family went on a mission trip to the Haven of Hope orphanage in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Emma led songs, her brother Zane volunteered to do sports activities, and their parents helped with cooking, cleaning and sustainability projects.
“The best time was just sitting with the kids and talking to them. That’s always what Emma loved most,” Sherry recalled.
Embracing the World’s Wonders
Emma loved playing games with the children, especially “Pato Pato Ganso” (Duck Duck Goose). Emma had a thing for ducks.
She and Drovdlic dreamed of rooming together after college and having a pair of pet ducks: “We had this whole plan. We were going to own two little ducks, and she came up with names for them: Cheese and Quackers.”
Now there’s an Instagram account dedicated to “the ducks of Emma” called pato_pato_ganso19. Her family and friends leave rubber duckies in places they’ve been with Emma, or places they know Emma would love.
“It’s places we just know she would think were absolutely incredible—and it’s easy because she would’ve thought everything was incredible,” Drovdlic said. “She wanted to travel the world and see everything.”
Emma was always up for an adventure.
“She wanted to skydive some day. She wanted to live in Hawaii and learn to surf. She started skateboarding in college,” Bart said. “She was in love with space. She wanted to be a nurse, but her other dream would be to work at NASA.”
One night, Emma was so taken with a big, bright, beautiful full moon that she sent an audio message to Drovdlic and a few other friends. Her voice is full of awe and wonder as she marvels: “It’s huge! It’s so big and so yellow! Oh, my…it looks like a huge piece of cheese! It’s so pretty!”
“She saw beauty in everything—in nature, in people, just everywhere,” Drovdlic said. “It kind of transformed the way I look at things now.”
Seeing the Unseen
Emma was that rare teen who knew what she wanted to do with her life. At Estero High, she was president of HOSA Future Health Professionals. She knew she wanted to go into medicine and work with kids, particularly children with disabilities.
She was in her second year at USF in the pre-nursing program when the accident happened. She was driving home to Estero from Tampa late on a Saturday night after attending a Christian retreat. She wanted to see Drovdlic sing in church the next morning and then watch the Super Bowl with her family.
Later, her parents discovered something in her journal—the final entry, written in her lovely, artistic form—three striking words: “It is finished.”
Emma had no way of knowing the next day would be her last on this earth. The reference was to Jesus’ final words on the cross at his crucifixion, as he laid down his life for the salvation of others. Emma took this personally and was filled with peace: “My salvation is the most beautiful gift of grace in my life,” she wrote.
Her friends and family say Emma authentically lived out the grace of God toward others. And she inspired them to do the same.
“You could tell she was almost always in a solid place with God because of who she was,” Zane said. “Sometimes she didn’t even have to use words—her presence was powerful enough to make you feel better.”
Sherry reflected on her daughter’s empathetic nature in a poignant Facebook post: “Emma once asked me why people were always telling her she was a good friend…Emma, it’s because you SEE people. You see the kid in the corner and the boy who is awkward and the girl on the wall and the kid alone at lunch. You see them. And then you don’t stop there. You GO to them. You just sit as if it was the most natural thing, and you talk to them. The rest of us either see them and keep walking or never see them at all.”
Echoing Emma’s Kindness
Now her legacy lives on at Haven of Hope, where a housing addition will honor “Emma’s Echo.” To date, about $63,000 has been raised for the project which will house college students participating in a new, accredited internship program in psychology and social work. They will spend one or two semesters in Bolivia learning first-hand how trauma informed care helps restore hurting children, said founder and President Alice Skaff.
Oftentimes, children at orphanages exhibit difficult behaviors because they have been traumatized, she explained.
“Many of the children in our home have been sexually abused. Some children have been abandoned because they’re just one more mouth to feed,” Skaff said. “A lot of kids come in and have no identification; some don’t know their birthdate. A social worker helps find information on their family, gets IDs and vaccinations, gets them enrolled in school and advocates for them in the court system.”
Those are things Emma would have wholeheartedly embraced—caring for the children she loved and laughed with during her time in Bolivia. Haven of Hope aims to bring its model of trauma informed care to orphanages around the globe including group homes in Peru, Kenya, Tanzania and Florida.
While several charitable initiatives are honoring Emma Bullock’s legacy, those who knew her best say her greatest “echo” comes in the form of the individual lives she forever changed.
“The way she saw the world and the way she loved people so well—it just literally changes the way all of us see the world,” Drovdlic said. “Seeing beauty in the little things. Being more spontaneous and adventurous. Staying positive in times that are hard. Being goofy. Seeing the unseen.
“She was the greatest friend to anybody. It didn’t matter if she had known them her whole life or just met them. She had a way of seeing people, and it was so cool.”
Support Emma’s Echo
Register to attend the Best Buddies Champion of the Year: Southwest Florida Gala on Oct. 22, 2021; or donate to the Champion of the Year fundraising team of Haley Marra and Sohitha Paruchuri (Emma’s Best Buddy) at