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Zella Talbot

HKIS's dedicated follower of FASHION - Zella Talbot

Zella Talbot, Hong Kong International School’s (HKIS) longest serving high school teacher, talks to DragonTales about her life, the Fashion Show and service.

Zella Talbot has made a difference in the lives of countless students over the years. However, her journey toward
teaching was not a foregone conclusion.

“I was studying History at college and knew I loved it, but I didn’t have a clear picture of what I would do after I graduated,” she says.

That all changed one day when her college Professor asked her if she had ever thought about teaching. She remembers being both surprised and moved that the Professor had noticed her.

“It was a big class and she had somehow managed to focus in and see something in me that I had not seen in myself,” says Zella. “That led to me starting to understand something that I now know: why as a teacher you can inspire.”

From that moment, Zella never looked back. She got her teaching degree, and as destiny would have it, joined HKIS in 1983. “I was adamant that this would be for only a year at the time,” she says.

Yet twenty-six years on, Zella is still at Zella Talbot, Hong Kong International School’s (HKIS) longest serving
high school teacher, talks to DragonTales about her life, the Fashion Show and service.

HKIS, and with no regrets. “I am glad I stayed, as here is where I met my husband and where my children have gone to school. HKIS is home for us in many ways.”

Over the past 26 years of teaching, Zella has had the opportunity to do what her Professor did for her – inspire young people. “As a teacher I have been privileged to touch the lives of many students and see their successes later on. I think that is more than anyone could ask for – money can’t buy this feeling.”

As busy as she is as a teacher and Mom to her children, Christa and Micah, Zella still finds time for service, and lots of it. Over the past 13 years, she has been involved with the Foshan Orphanage in China, a girls’ scholarship program in China organized by the Concordia Welfare and Education Foundation, and service Interims in Hong Kong and Kolkata, India.


Students at the Foshan orphanage

She started the Service on Saturday program at HKIS in 1996, which today has grown to 21 groups and over 300 students who do service in Hong Kong. Zella, with her husband, fellow HKIS teacher Marty Schmidt, developed the Humanities in Action course, which transformed the service ethos in the high school by guiding students to be better people through teaching them the joy of helping others through service.

“A lot of kids are searching for their own identity, and through this course they learn about meaning and purpose in life. This is very important for the younger generation,”
she says.

However, arguably, Zella’s most successful service-inspired project is the Interact Fashion Show, both in terms of funds it has raised and in how it has affected the lives of the students who put the show together.

Fashion with a Conscience

Zella says ten years ago when a fashion show was first proposed as an Interact fundraiser by President Joanne Chow, she thought that the idea, once tried, would not last.

“I thought the production itself would be too time-consuming on the part of the student leaders and committee members. I didn’t think that future student leaders would be committed to this kind of work without having to make personal sacrifices involving their academic performance.”

However, the first fashion show, ‘Divine’, was performed in 1999, earning HK$80,000 for UNICEF and Oxfam.
And like Joanne, Interact leaders throughout the last ten years have felt that the sacrifice was well worth it, and the fashion show has become a tradition.

Over the years, the fashion show has evolved into a major school production. Year after year student leaders have improved the quality of the performance, and the show has continued to receive an enthusiastic reception from both students and parents.

In 2006, Interact President Eliott Suen stepped into the leadership role and introduced higher standards and greater professionalism. “The speed, timing and choreography were synchronized to a point unimaginable for a high school production. This new trend was the blueprint for future leaders to adapt to their own styles,” says Zella.

‘Nova’ in 2007, led by David Suen and Soojin Kim, was part of the school’s 40th anniversary celebrations, and saw studentcreated designs introduced for the first time. This has grown to be an important aspect of the show and at ‘Vivre 2009’, 21 students participated in producing their own designs.

The ultimate accolade came this year when a parent who had been a professional model for Vogue said that the level of performance in this show surpassed some of the ones he had participated in. “Each show took on a different character depending on who the leaders were, but the expectations of high quality continued,”
says Zella.

She believes it is the sense of ownership students feel for the production that motivates them to be involved in this sixmonth process. “As the faculty advisor, I have learned so much from the students in terms of self-motivation, perseverance and attention to detail.”

“I believe that the show is an opportunity for our students to join together from all grade levels to create a high quality performance with a sense of purpose.”

In the last ten years, the show has raised over HK$2 million and has contributed to various organizations, such as UNICEF, Oxfam, Hong Kong Down’s Syndrome Association, Rotary, Youth Outreach, Save the Children Fund, Free The Children, and Concordia Welfare Education Foundation.

Zella says she is most proud that over the years the fashion show has contributed to many people’s needs in Hong Kong, China and the world. Our donations to ‘Free The Children’ have built a total of four schools in Kenya and China. The proceeds from this year’s fashion show will allow more than 30 girls to attend and graduate from high school in Deqing, Guangdong Province. It has been these contributions that have sustained
my commitment to the fashion show.”

Service and the Christian Connection Zella and Marty’s strong Christian faith has been fundamental for them in the service work they do: “In thinking of service we think of serving God as well. Our faith embodies all that and makes us stronger individuals, even when being challenged in certain areas.”

She tells her students that in doing service there are huge sacrifices one has to make, and not to expect reward.
Nevertheless, Zella’s commitment to service and helping others has been recognized. She received the Paul Harris Fellow Award from Rotary in 2005 in recognition of her fund raising efforts.

And this year, Zella and Marty were jointly recognized by Concordia University and presented with the Partners in Ministry Award. Somewhat ironically, they could not fly to the US to be presented with their award because they had already committed to a service trip to China at the time of the presentation.
“This recognition means a lot to us; it is nice to know that our work has been noticed. However, this is not why we do it. It’s always about helping young people and those less fortunate,” smiles Zella.

Asked to name two students she would most like to recognize, Zella sits back and pauses for some time. “That’s such a tough question,” she laughs.

After a few moments, she comes up with the name David Begbie: “He was on one of my Kolkata service trips and I always knew there was something special about David... he was so determined to care. It was during this trip that David told me he wanted to be “the voice for the voiceless”.

“In fact, the Begbie family is my role model of a good Christian family. “They are glowing with love. There is so much warmth in that family. HKIS is very fortunate to have them.”

Zella says a highlight of the Nova Fashion how in 2006 was that David and Josh Begbie and their parents were awarded medallions for their years of service with Crossroads International.

Zella pauses again in thought, and says another she would recognize is Joanne Chow who was the Interact President who first dreamt of a fashion show at HKIS.

“If you met her as a leader you’d notice she is a very quiet and unassuming character. For her to take the risk and say let’s try doing a Fashion Show was quite something,” says Zella.

She says we have many leaders like Joanne that we could all learn from, if we give them a chance. “Even though the risk factor may be high, they can come up with some great ideas. No one would ever have thought that the Fashion Show would be still continuing today.”

Joanne has inspired Zella to always look for different qualities in leaders and not just to go with the vocal, outgoing type, but also to look to the humble ones and the real risk takers. HKIS needs to be open to all these types of young individuals because they are the leaders of the future. For HKIS to be able to raise so much money through
Joanne’s one idea to start a fashion show is truly remarkable.”

As for the future, Zella has no life-changing plans, apart from keeping busy helping others. She believes, as her father taught her, that one should keep working to keep the mind active.

“I want to keep busy. If I ever left HKIS, I am sure I would do something in the area of counseling, service or teaching. Perhaps one day we will go and work for Crossroads.”

“Yes, the SLRs do come through. Through managing the Fashion Show, which involves 100 students over 6 months of preparation, students grow in their character development as they learn the leadership skills necessary to pull off such a major production. Students care passionately about the quality of the show and do a lot of the work themselves, which demonstrates self-motivated learning. Finally, the funds contribute to real needs in our community.”

– Zella Talbot


Source:  DragonTales Volume 12 Winter Edition 2009