Leon Picha can remember the precise moment his life changed: Sunday, Feb. 3, 11:42 a.m.
He knows, because he had to run outside to take the phone call, due to poor cell reception inside his home.
At that moment, Leon, a Grade 12 student at McNair secondary, had no idea if the voice on the other end – Loran Scholars Foundation’s CEO Meghan Moore – was going to ignite his dream or break his heart.
“Hearing the voice of Loran’s CEO was very scary. I didn’t necessarily know it was going to be a good call,” Leon told the Richmond News.
“I’d already been communicating with (other Loran scholarship candidates) who already got the call, with the same small talk and it ended with a ‘no,’ so I didn’t know how this was going to go.
“Meghan talked about the B.C. snow and how it hadn’t snowed in a year. She said ‘the snow must be a sign of good luck, because you are now a Loran scholar.’
Around the same time, over at the home of Cole Langer, an equally edgy fellow McNair Grade 12 student, the phone was also ringing.
CEO Meghan to Cole: “How’s your day going?”
Cole: “Great, thank you.”
Meghan: “I’m glad to hear that, because you’ve been selected as a Loran scholar.”
An ecstatic Cole signalled to his parents standing close by, provoking tears to roll down his mom’s face.
Only two hours earlier, Leon and Cole had stepped off a flight from Toronto, having spent the weekend being put through their paces as two of 88 finalists vying for a coveted $100,000 Loran Award scholarship, which also includes tuition waivers from a partner university, mentorship, summer-internship funding, as well as annual retreats and forums.
The boys were plucked out 5,089 candidates nationwide, based on character, commitment to service in the community and leadership potential.
The finals included a series of panel-led interviews, with the Loran Scholars Foundation granting one of 34 awards to the winners.
“It was intimidating, being interviewed by past-chairs of BMO,” said Leon.
“A Canadian author interviewed me. I told her I didn’t like to read. She stood back a bit and I thought that was it, my chance was over.
“But we had a good conversation and she gave me a list of books to read. I told her I don’t like to pry for information and dissect information. I prefer to deal with facts.
“I cried twice during the six interviews. The questions were so detailed. They asked about the biggest fear on the upcoming year. I spoke my mind and was talking about my family’s health. My dad has health issues and I was afraid for him.
“My grandmother, who’s now in her 90s, basically raised me. When they started asking me questions, it was a little overwhelming.”
Leon said he’s been receiving texts non-stop from people about his award.
“It’s amazing to feel so much support; it makes me feel like what I’ve been doing has really made an impact. Sometimes, it’s hard to feel that,” he said.
His plan for the scholarship is to study some sort of business administration or business degree and “get a job, I guess.”
“I was thinking either McGill, Western or the University of Toronto. Without (the scholarship), they would only be a dream, so it’s very exciting.”
Cole told the News last month how he’d also like to go to McGill University, to do youth psychology, where he can get involved in summer internships and give back to the community.
Of course, the success of the boys – who only recently discovered they went to the same South Arm Community Centre pre-school – doesn’t happen by accident.
“For me, you have to be willing to help and want to help your community,” said Cole, a Woodward elementary alumni.
“My (older) brother and sister are both very kind people and that’s shown me the way to go.
“Also, my father was in a car accident the year before I was born and has had post-concussion syndrome. Having to deal with that growing up has helped me be aware of the different things going on in people’s lives. I guess it’s kind of instilled in my family to help others.”
While acknowledging the influence of many mentors in his life, Leon singled out two teachers – Miss Thomas from Grade 5 at Kingswood elementary and Miss Watts in Grade 9 at McNair.
“(Miss Thomas) was very strict and on the first day, I was kind of scared of her. She said, ’I run a tight ship, get used to it.’
“Then I realized, everything she was doing was in our best interests, she would always encourage us to do well. If we fell behind, she always wanted to help.
“That was around the time my parents separated. I lived with my dad full-time at that point and (Miss Thomas) would stay behind after school to make sure I was safe and happy. She really pushed me to give back; she made me more confident.
“In Grade 9, my theatre teacher (Miss Watts) really changed me and opened my eyes. In Grade 8, I was really closed off…she said, ‘get over yourself.’ I was shocked. She said, ‘Stop trying to be what you’re not. Be yourself, be happy.’”
And asked what McNair has that other schools may not, the boys were both in agreement.
“Community. It has such a strong community; there’s such positive energy here. It’s so easy to do well here,” explained Cole.
McNair principal Jason Leslie hailed the boys as “truly remarkable students who have made positive contributions in too many ways to count.”
“Having worked in the Richmond School District for 27 years, I have never been at a school where two members of the same grad class have been nominated for this award, and I have never seen any school have two candidates make it to the final 88.
“We are incredibly proud of these boys…”