Stories: Children, Communities, Futures

Rhodes family leaves life-changing legacy in Laos

In October 2013, Gavin Rhodes, his wife Lea, and their children, three-year-old Jade and 17-month-old Manfred, excitedly set off for the family`s much-loved second home, Laos. But when travelling from Laos` capital, Vientiane to Pakse, Lea`s home town, tragedy struck. After hitting bad weather their plane crashed into the Mekong River, just six kilometres from its destination. Of the 49 people on board, no one survived.

“To lose four people from your family is unimaginable. That`s the one thing we heard from everyone, ˜I can`t believe how you must be feeling`,” says Melissa, Gavin`s sister. “My reply was that,˜I couldn`t either`. It was just surreal. It still is to be honest.”

The Rhodes family were overwhelmed by the huge outpouring of support they received from their family, friends, neighbours, co-workers, their local community and the wider Australian public. Despite their grief, they wanted to see something positive come from this terrible tragedy.

Melissa says: “I can`t remember exactly how we came up with the idea of charity. I think it was because we all thought about how much money all those beautiful flowers must be costing, and how, although they were much appreciated, we wish the money could go towards something.

“We decided we wanted to do something to make sure Gavin, Lea, Jade and Manfred would always be remembered. They would make a difference,” she adds.

So Gavin and Lea`s sister-in-law, Kathy, sprang into action researching child-focused Aussie charities working in Laos. That`s where ChildFund Australia entered the story. The Rhodes family decided to fundraise to support the construction of a four-room preschool in a remote village in Nonghet district in northern Laos, where ChildFund has been working since 2010.

“The project we chose had special meaning to me personally, as after losing my niece and nephew I wanted to do something that was related to children,” says Gavin`s brother, Ben. “Also Lea, our sister-in-law, had a lot of opportunities for education in Laos which many children don`t, so being able to give more children better education opportunities will hopefully bring some light from an otherwise dark situation.”

Once the family had set up their fundraising page they weren`t really sure how many donations they would receive. But they had nothing to worry about. “I receive emails on my phone every time someone donates and on the day of the funeral I was receiving non-stop emails all day,” says Melissa.

The family watched with happiness as they hit the $20,000 mark, then $40,000, then $60,000. Gavin`s mum, Doreen, feels that every time someone donates it is like they are giving the family a hug. With just $15,000 of their $81,000 fundraising target to go, Ben and Melissa decided to get a team together to run the Sydney City2Surf last year. Even their 70-year-old dad, Geoff, signed up to take on the infamous Heartbreak Hill for his family.

Though a seasoned runner, this race was very special for Ben. “It was the first time I had run with any family members so it was great to start the race with them. It was also the first race I`d finished since having my son. So having him and my wife there at the finish line was a great feeling for me,” he says. “I thought a lot about my brother and his family through the race, so it was nice to know that crossing the finish line we had achieved something positive in their memory.”

Melissa adds: “It was very emotional at the finish line. Our whole family was there €“ my mum, my husband and three kids, Ben`s wife and his son, Theodore, as well. The whole way I was thinking about our angels in heaven and how they would never have the opportunity to do something like this.”

To date the Rhodes family have almost raised an amazing $85,000 in memory of Gavin, Lea, Jade and Manfred. This will fund not only the construction of the preschool but also support other parts of the project, including teacher training, bathrooms for the school and learning materials.

This preschool will be the first of its kind in one of ChildFund`s newest partner villages in remote Nonghet district in northern Laos. The preschool will not only mean infants in the village have access to early education for the first time, but their parents will be able to work in the fields without worrying about their young ones and their older siblings will be able to stay in school rather than drop out to look after them. This one preschool really does have the power to transform this village.

“I always believe that if you give children a brighter start in life, it will have a much greater effect on their community,” says Ben. “In the future, those same children will hopefully be able to give back to their community and add even more benefit to the next generation of children.”

ChildFund Australia would like to thank the entire Rhodes family for their incredible fundraising and the life-changing legacy they have left for children and families in Laos.

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