Meet Dennise Rao, one of the administrative, creative and inspirational forces at Jakarta International School.
When did you come to Indonesia?
I first arrived in Jakarta in 1984. Newly wed, my husband and I came from Perth, Australia, with no inkling of the wonderful opportunities that lay before us.
Jakarta in the 80s was a very different place. The biggest mall was Ratu Plaza and Pondok Indah was still bushland. We grew very attached to Jakarta during our initial five-year stay, which saw our family double in size, with the arrival of two daughters, as well as the beginning of many lasting and valuable friendships. That’s why, after several years living in France and the Middle East, we returned to Jakarta in 1997. Coming back was a surreal experience. The humble city I once knew had exploded into a major metropolitan centre. While this meant spending more time in malls, crazy traffic and chain restaurants, it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement of Jakarta’s growth.
How did you begin working for JIS?
Much of my life in Jakarta has revolved around JIS. All three of my children attended the school and were very much involved in all aspects of what it had to offer; so I saw a perfect opportunity for myself to grow by becoming a part of such a great community. I started by substitute teaching for my son’s grade.
Tell us about your present role.
For the past six years I have been the Head of Admissions and oversaw the centralization of the Admissions Office. The result is a much friendlier and more efficient service for families arriving in Jakarta. I am also overseeing the re-development of the Alumni Office.
I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by passionate educators and inspiring students. My days are spent talking to people from many different walks of life, laughing, sometimes crying with them and getting to know their most precious gifts, their children. There isn’t a day that I don’t feel the energy that 2,600 children create.
Parents credit you for developing the popular JIS Elementary musicals. How did they start?
In 2002, I started working on Elementary School drama options with a JIS colleague and friend, Keith Allerton, who shared my passion for children’s theatre. At JIS, there are two elementary school campuses. We decided a combined production needed to be held at the Cilandak campus’ Fine Arts Theatre – which until then had primarily been used for older students’ productions. The state-of-the-art facilities proved to be the perfect venue for our students to get a full theatre experience complete with lighting, backdrops, a green room and more.
One thing we did not initially realize was the potential for these productions to be truly vertically inclusive. Being at the Cilandak campus, we were able to have Middle School students help with the make-up and costumes, and High School students assist with the lights, stage and management. It became a school-wide event, as well as a unique learning opportunity for everyone involved. Our first play in 2003 had 48 children audition, while for our most recent production, 215 students auditioned.
The Elementary School musical production has been incredibly successful and the school now has a very popular drama and creative dance programme in the curriculum. Our productions have included Seussical, Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland and Mulan. This year we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz and will be performing it in May. You can contact any JIS campus for tickets.
I heard you had trouble at Customs when bringing in costumes.
I was carrying 150 pairs of these really great men’s socks that have great patterns on them and a button to keep them connected, perfect for 150 Munchkins. Customs was a bit concerned that I needed all these socks for personal use, so it took a bit of convincing but I eventually got through.
You edited a book called Letters from Aceh. How did that come about?
After the 2004 tsunami, a JIS parent was able to return to her hometown in Aceh, despite it being a closed-off disaster area. She witnessed first-hand how the people there were affected by this devastating natural disaster. JIS students sent with her, letters of support and encouragement to the children of Aceh. JIS also sent some paper and pens for the children. We couldn’t possibly have foreseen the response that we received from them.
Four students at JIS Pondok Indah Elementary decided to raise money for children in Aceh by selling booklets consisting of photocopies of these letters. The success of these girls, combined with the overwhelming response from the children of Aceh, inspired me to seek publication of the letters in a book, the proceeds of which would go towards rebuilding a school in Aceh.
How did you find a publisher?
Sid Harta Publishers was one of the first publishers recommended to me, and after talking with their founder Kerry Collison for only a few minutes, I could tell that they were just as excited about the project as I was. We did, however, need capital for it all to come together. Fortunately, Schlumberger Oilfield Services decided to sponsor and add to the project. They organized for children in other countries in which they were located to send in letters as well. We collectively started sending letters from Australia, South America, Egypt and the Middle East to the children of Aceh. Meanwhile, JIS parents got involved translating the numerous letters into English. I was also working closely with the publishing house to edit the content and design of the book.
The project really became a community effort and nothing could stand in our way. Letters from Aceh was published in November 2004 and raised over $100,000. Since then, I have been contacted by two former US presidents, George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton, who both informed me that they wished to add Letters from Aceh to the Bush Clinton Congressional Library and thanked me for my efforts in being part of its creation. Additionally, we were extremely honoured to have President SBY’s support and endorsement. Ultimately, the thing I am most happy about is that students are learning in the school that was built from our book’s proceeds.
You were also behind the creation of the JIS Academy.
Another friend and colleague, Butch Koltai, and I started talking about holiday programs and enrichment opportunities in the community. There wasn’t much, so we pitched the idea of creating a division in the school that catered to these opportunities. JIS Academy was born and is now in its eighth year and has become an integral part of the school.
Any regrets in choosing the expat life?
None. I would do it all over again. Although saying goodbye and being away from loved ones is always difficult, the frequency of new friends, unique cultural experiences and friends from around the world far outweigh this.
I feel very fortunate to be living in Indonesia for many reasons. Indonesian people are extremely warm, kind-hearted and hard working. I have enjoyed making close friends with many Indonesians who continually show me sides of Jakarta that would otherwise not exist for an expat like me. The expat community in Jakarta is also very robust and welcoming and we draw on each other all the time for support, nostalgia and to educate each other with our differences.
I feel good as a person who’s been fortunate to not only get to know the people of Indonesia, but also to have had the privilege of being able to give back to society, especially to the disadvantaged. Indonesia has, in that sense, allowed me to live a more complete and satisfying life, from both a professional and a personal perspective.