Cathy James — the mother, grandmother, outdoor enthusiast, educator and ardent advocate for the young — passed away a little more than a year ago, but her influence and legacy continue to ripple in the institutions she founded. One, Bright Futures, based in Telluride, is a nonprofit that supports early childhood education in San Miguel County.
James’ name lives on with The Cathy James Financial Aid Program, which helps working families afford child care in San Miguel County. Funded by the Early Childhood Care and Education Fund through a countywide mill levy, the aid program in this fiscal year (July-June) has supported 54 children so far, which accounts for about half its budgeted amount of $160,000.
The other is the Tiny Seeds Preschool in Nepal, and that’s where friends and former colleagues — Nancy Craft, Laura Kudo and Rob Schultheis — recently journeyed to pay tribute to her work there.
James’ passion for early childhood education, Craft and Kudo said, began in the startlingly beautiful mountains half a world away from our own striking mountains. In 1998, James and other Telluride High School teachers — Don Mitchell and Jeffrey Jones — shepherded a dozen juniors and seniors to Nepal for an immersion in another country. They needed a guide, and that’s where Craft came in.
“That’s when we met and became friends,” Craft said. “She thought that trip was meaningful for the kids.”
On that trip, James met Nepalese early childhood educator and trek operator, Jyoti Adhikari, who wanted to start a school for Nepal’s youngest citizens.
“He was very forward-thinking,” Craft said. “He saw that early childhood education was where it was at. His vision was to provide education for the future leadership of Nepal and the world.”
When James and Adhikari met, Craft said, she knew she wanted to help him. The money for the school all came from in-country — Craft and Kudo are quick to explain that the school is neither a charity nor is it an NGO — but James did help with providing Montessori materials on a number of subsequent trips to Nepal. The result, Kudo said, “is a pretty cutting edge preschool” that serves children from the ages of 2 to 6.
Tiny Seeds has grown, and is now at its second location in Naya Bazaar near Kathmandu. The vibrant school boasts vegetable gardens, laden grapefruit trees, a flock of baby ducks, an audio-visual facility and a large library. There are seven head teachers and seven teacher’s assistants, as well as four members of the kitchen staff, who also assist in the children’s activities. Around 135 kids attend the school. Under what Kudo describes as a “rigorous curriculum,” the students graduate knowing how to read, write and speak two languages, and possess mathematics skills at the second-grade level. Each of the classrooms has a name — Rainbow, Tree, River and Mountain.
“That was definitely Cathy. It’s a very joyful, nurturing place,” Craft said. “She’s an icon there.”
And so, on the one-year anniversary of her death, the school and James’ friends partook in a celebration and tribute that coincided with the start of Tihar, a five-day Hindu festival of lights. The three friends took in dancing, speeches and the unveiling of a portrait of James as a centerpiece. Kudo and Craft explained that they’d sent a photo of James to the school previous to traveling there and thought that would have been used for the celebration, but instead saw that her smiling countenance had been beautifully rendered in graphite on paper. Her spirit shines from the drawing.
Next up for the trio was a trip to Mukltinath, — Craft described the area as a “very spiritual place, revered by both Buddhists and Hindus” — a village situated in a sweeping landscape on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. It was a place James had always wanted to go, so Craft, Kudo and Schultheis brought her there. Bearing some of her ashes, the trio lovingly constructed a cairn. Cairn building is a ritual for those honoring departed loved ones. In it, they tucked her ashes, strung prayer flags and placed a sign made by James’ friend Peter Chapman reading: “Ama-Zing.” Ama is the Nepalese word for grandmother, a role that James cherished.
With 8,000-meter, snowcapped peaks rising in the distance, James’ cairn is in a stunning spot.
“It was a great day,” Craft said. “It was beautiful.”
While Craft and Schultheis made their way back to Telluride, Kudo remained for an additional week to take part in further teacher training for the Tiny Seeds staff. Describing the curriculum as a combination of Montessori, Waldorf and other early childhood approaches — “Nepalesorri,” she said with a laugh — Kudo said the methods by which the children are taught is “cutting edge, big and relevant.”
Now that the three are all home, their monumental undertaking is beginning to sink in.
“She was my mentor-teacher,” Kudo said. “She had so much passion, love and energy. She was with us all the time.”
Craft agreed and called her friend, “curious, energetic and positive. Her own grandchildren were always on her mind and Tiny Seeds was a way of connecting her grandchildren to something she really loved. We miss her a lot. We wanted to do this.”