These students are on their own, not a teacher in sight, and were our first ever successful applicants for the James Rao – Live Your Dream Foundation, and the goal that we’ve been working towards for the last two years. So I guess, at this point, I need to rewind the clock back seven years and tell you how the passing of one of my former students has enabled something truly unique, hugely special and indeed life changing to happen for the community of our school.
When I started teaching in Toulouse in September 2009, I inherited my first ever Year 13 IB Geography class. They were a small group, eight or nine from memory – lots of personality and very well-gelled. You couldn’t miss James, a tall and strapping lad, beaming smile and a mop of black curly hair – a real gentle giant. James was a superb Geography student; a well-travelled boy who had followed his family around the world living in the UK, India, USA and France in his 17 years. He was hugely proud of his Indian heritage and loved India, its vibe and the people. He was the driving force behind our February 2010 IB CAS trip to the Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Home for Children in Mumbai, where we worked tirelessly for one week on renovation projects and working in local schools.
James graduated in May 2010 and won the prestigious award of ‘Outstanding contribution to IST’ in his leaving ceremony. He was also the student who did the ‘thanks to the Geography teacher’ speech during the same ceremony and did a great job too!
James had a real passion for flying, and was always going to be a commercial pilot. So it came as no surprise that, upon graduation, he quickly set about on a very challenging path of further education in Spain to achieve his pilot status. He often popped into school to say hello and to give career talks to the IGCSE and IB students as well as to check up on his brother, Matt, and sister, Emma who were also students here. In 2014, James finally started work for a commercial airline, flying passengers in A320s in and out of Dubai.
News came to us of his remarkable achievement through his siblings and also on his Facebook page and we were thrilled that he had fulfilled his dream at the incredibly young age of 21. However, tragedy struck later the same month when James collapsed and died just outside his apartment in Dubai. I received an email from his Dad to let me know and to say that they had no idea why he had died, but suspected cardiac arrest. A number of weeks later it transpired that James had been suffering from cancer but he had no idea that he had it. Indeed, he had passed his pilot medical a short time before his death.
Shortly after this awful news, I received a second communication asking me if I would be prepared to be involved in/help to run something to help to remember James at school. The family didn’t want to inherit his life insurance money, and wanted to plough it into as many charitable projects as possible, including the Foundation that has been created in his name.
What followed was a bit of a blur, and was very difficult initially to deal with emotionally and logically. We had a short meeting with his distraught parents, Kiran and Alison, and to make matters worse, his sister Emma was just about to sit her IGCSE examinations, so we had to be hugely careful to protect her as much as possible. We were given a working name of ‘Live Your Dream’, and that the aim should be for students and staff to go off and do something that they would never normally be able to do financially, living a lifelong dream and to and make a real difference while there.
I undertook the building of a website - www.jamesraodream.com - which would act as both a memorial to James and as the portal to the Foundation. Fortunately, I am ‘friends’ with James on Facebook, and so my starting point was to use the images there as well as my own from his time on school trips and our India visit. Kiran, Alison, Matt and Emma weren’t at the stage where they could even look at, let alone provide photos of, James. Therefore, I very much made my own way with their full support and encouragement and using James’s aunty Anita in Los Angeles as my point of contact.
The next stage was to design and implement an application process that satisfied health and safety, safety of destinations, age restrictions and a whole range of other potential pitfalls. Nothing else like this seemed to be out there, and after several pleas via Twitter and other social media platforms, I realised that it meant starting from scratch and with no guidance whatsoever. At this point, with the size of the task becoming apparent, I decided to ask my friend and head of Maths at IST, Jim Noble, to come aboard. Jim is a real ideas man, and has been the reason that we have been able to get the Foundation up and running so smoothly and quickly. We decided on a five step approach, with interviews at the end for the successful students. The group and individual application forms were created and very much put the emphasis on students and parents researching fully the transport, accommodation and service providers then coming up with a final application covering all eventualities with as little input from us as possible.
The launch assembly in June 2015 organised by Jim, and it was an exciting but nerve-wracking experience, as the whole school got together in the presence of the Rao family. We used staff stories of travels and old photos showing their travels around the world as well as past alumni and their fantastic exploits to highlight the adventure and making a difference theme. The students were told that they could literally apply to go anywhere in the world and do anything they wanted (within reason!) and if it was in the spirit of James and his Foundation, it would be fully paid for! Initially, it was difficult for the students to take in as there are generally few occasions in life that you get to go far away and do something utterly amazing that is 100% funded.
After worrying that we might not get any applications, we received some brilliant ones from students who had thought long and hard about where they would go and what they would do. Final interviews were held and four successful applications were chosen to go and live their dream in 2016. As of writing, Grace is on her way back from Brazil, Patrick and Jonathan are on their way to Jamaica, and Bernardo is packing his bags ready for a very long journey to complete remote island conservation work on the Galapagos. You can find out what they chose to do and why on this page - http://www.jamesraodream.com/2016-dream-trips.html - and they’ve been tweeting back their experiences here, too: https://twitter.com/JamesRaoLYD.
Of course, it hasn’t been plain sailing either. Grace had to make a last minute decision whether to continue her visit in light of the threat of the Zika virus, given that she was going to be working extensively in the Favelas of Rio. We couldn’t have foreseen that one coming, but after consultation with medical professionals, she felt reassured enough to leave her family for the first time ever and travel thousands of miles from home.
Goodbye Brazil, it has been amazing pic.twitter.com/nHRv29w1Xq— Live Your Dream (@JamesRaoLYD) 1 July 2016
So, it’s been a real labour of love. Getting it right for James’ sake, and to be something that his family are proud of, has been incredible. The Rao family have been so wonderfully generous, and it is a truly amazing and unique initiative that they are supporting. Our 2017 launch assembly on 8th June (James’s 24th birthday) was superbly organised by Jim, and we already have some incredible initial applications well in advance of our deadline. Those going this year all made the point during the assembly that the application process was actually hugely testing and took a massive amount of time to get right. We think that should be the case and given that each student can claim up to €4000 funding for their individual visit, there should be some real soul-searching, hours of research and calculations to enable the dream to become a reality.
It seems to be the beginning of something very special, certainly life-changing for all involved, and I really can’t wait to see the students on their return and find out about all the amazing things that they’ve been up to in James’ name. One thing is for sure: James would most definitely be thrilled with the adventures that are going on in his name, and proud that his Foundation is making such a difference to the lives of others in many different parts of the world. He’d also be pretty keen to find out if the food there was good too!
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