Few things in life are as important as your dreams. Taking the time to pursue them through hard work, dedication and perseverance is integral to living your best life. That’s why HuffPost RYOT, in partnership with American Family Insurance, presents Fearless Dreamers, an original 360 film series that celebrates and recognizes individuals who are passionately and fearlessly pursuing their dreams.

RACHEL FLEIT

MICHAEL PATRICK THORNTON

KYLE FOSSO

At just 5 years old, Fosso dreamt of becoming a pilot, constantly jumping off the deck of his home just to feel the sensation of flying through the air — if only for a moment.

That sense of wonderment and adventure grew stronger as Fosso got older. He’d fly model planes in his hometown of Anacortes, Wash, and when he was 14 he stumbled into flight school.

“I happened to be at the airport helping my dad fix a repair, and I sat in the airplane. The first time I sat in an airplane was the first time I felt like it was a reality — like this was something I could achieve,” he says.

The flight school eventually hired Fosso. Every day after class, he’d take the bus to the school and work up to three hours a night, doing mundane but necessary jobs like washing, waxing and cleaning the roof of the planes or weeding the yard around the school.

Throughout it all, Fosso never lost sight of his dream. He flew solo the week after his 16th birthday. And the joy Fosso felt that first day hasn’t left him since.

Now, the 21-year-old is on his way to achieving another dream: to share his passion for aviation with other young people.

To do it, Fosso is preparing to fly his Cessna 170B aircraft over all of America’s 50 states. He’ll film his journey so others can see our country’s beauty and experience the exhilaration of flying.

“My dream is really to capture that, and share what I love with other people,” Fosso says. “I also want to use my backstory, struggle and accomplishments to inspire and motivate other people to go about pursuing their dream.”

Though Fosso discovered his passion at an early age, his backstory shows that perseverance is a critical component to achieving any dream.

When he first started working at the flight school, Fosso says others in the aviation community didn’t take him seriously because he was so young, and assumed he was going to lose interest in flying. But he showed up every day, rain, snow or shine, proving to everyone — including himself — that he could one day become a pilot.

Fosso also faced a harrowing experience when he first began to fly. As a student pilot with about 30 hours of flying experience, he got stranded in a snowstorm, flying completely blind at 500 feet next to hill that was about 1,200 feet. However, he kept really calm and used his compass and altitude indicator to turn the plane around and land safely. The experience only lasted a few minutes, but it felt like hours to Fosso.

“It really made me feel like a pilot,” he says.

Fosso is putting all that drive, ambition and experience to good use. At 15, he purchased a plane that he is now restoring.

“I fell in love with this airplane. I saw it taxing out and said ‘that’s the airplane I want.’ Three weeks later, I found exactly the model and the year and hauled it out as a wreck,” he says. “It was exciting, earning the money to put into the project, never letting anything stop me.”

This summer, an estimated audience of more than 600,000 people will get to see the fruits of Fosso’s six years of labor when he showcases his beloved plane in Oshkosh, Wis. at EAA AirVenture, the largest air show in the world. The show features more than 10,000 airplanes, and Fosso’s plane will be exhibited next to the original 1954 model.

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Attending the festival is Fosso’s current dream — just one of many he’s accomplished in his short 21 years. Fosso hopes his story shows young people that their abilities are limitless.

“The kids I’m talking to in high schools, I want them to absorb the fact that it doesn’t matter how old you are or how much money you have or what your background is, it’s about getting what you want,” he says. “To dream fearlessly is a core part of the message I’m trying to get out there.”

 

He used a walker to balance and carefully thrust his hips forward for each step. As he moved across the room, he realized the surreality of actually moving from thought to reality.

“I remember looking up at my physical therapist and saying, ‘Is this walking?’” says Thornton. “He said to me, ‘That’s walking.’”

During his patient discharge meeting at the hospital several months earlier, it was implied that he would probably not make further progress towards reaching his dream of walking. Since the doctors were never able to determine exactly why he got sick and without a cause, it was impossible to determine a timeline for recovery.

The lack of an official prognosis didn’t deter the 24-year-old actor and director from pursuing his dreams

“I said to heck with that,” says Thornton. “I went home and kept working out.”

In between workouts, Thornton still managed to squeeze in creative projects, even holding auditions in the hospital for a play he was directing. The play went live in August — barely six months after getting sick.

His official discharge came after months of rigorous physical therapy following two successive spinal strokes in March and April of that year. At home, he did sessions with and without a physical therapist who visited his home, six days a week for at least three hours a day, a routine he would keep up for four years.

Before his stroke, Thornton was active in the Chicago theater community as an actor and director. In 2001, he co-founded a new theater in the northwest neighborhood of Jefferson Park, called The Gift.

 

Though the strokes turned the healthy 24-year-old into a quadriplegic, he never stopped working toward his dreams. In fact, Thornton credits the long period of immense physical and emotional stress he underwent to a renewed clarity of vision and purpose.

“When I was on life support and the only thing I could move was my eyeballs, I remember being in the basement of my soul,” says Thornton. “Getting back on stage and acting was what I would fight for. Honestly, I’d rather have a less dramatic way to face that question. Still, I did at 24 years old really learn that this was who I was.”

Thornton had another unexpected revelation, this one the result of an unforeseen circumstance at the hospital. When he was enrolled as a patient, the adult spinal cord floor was full, so Thornton was put on the pediatric floor.

“That really saved my life,” says Thornton. “Not just changed. Saved. Those kids showed me that there’s always a choice. They know what was going on, yet they still chose to play, to have fun, to race down the hallway in their wheelchairs. They taught me that we have some authorship over our narrative.”

While taking those thirty-three hard-fought steps in the winter of 2003 was a major milestone for Thornton, he didn’t stop there. He continued working out, went through intense speech therapy, and continued to act. In 2006, he acted in a one-man showed called The Good Thief and in 2009, directed Of Mice and Men.

This year, he did something even more miraculous. With the help of a high-tech robotic exoskeleton called ReWalk, Thornton walked onto the stage at Steppenwolf theater (in partnership with The Gift) to portray the infamously disabled Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard III.

His appearance at that particular theater marked the next act in a parallel narrative he had followed since the 8th grade. While seeing a play at Steppenwolf as part of a youth outreach program, Thornton first realized he wanted to become an actor. After studying at the University of Iowa, he joined Steppenwolf’s 10-week training program and met several people who would later join the ensemble at The Gift. It was also at Steppenwolf where Thornton met his wife, Lindsey. After he became sick, Steppenwolf reached out to Thornton and it was there where he first acted again.

Richard III received rave reviews from numerous Chicago critics.

While it wasn’t a path Thornton would have chosen, he nevertheless has taken every ounce of meaning from the experience.

“There are times that something we want looks unlikely or we see it receding in the rear view mirror,” he says. “Amazing things happen when you suddenly decide, with no evidence whatsoever, to believe that they will.”

It makes sense that creative director and filmmaker Rachel Fleit, 35, now feels comfortable and confident in the ocean, swimming as often as she can (even in December, if only for a quick polar plunge) near her current home in Spring, Long Island. As a child, Fleit had to swim wearing a wig.

At 18 months old, Fleit lost all of the hair on her body, including eyebrows and lashes, due to an extremely rare condition called alopecia universalis. Growing up in Stony Brook, Long Island — a quaint university town that draws in students and tourists hoping for an authentic slice of Americana — was always going to be fundamentally different for Fleit.

“[It’s] always hard no matter what you have on your plate,” she says of childhood. In Stony Brook, “Beauty was valued. If you have really nice long hair and you’re really skinny … I wasn’t any of those things. I spent a lot of my childhood daydreaming, imagining what things could be like.”

Her physical appearance, she says, “has not allowed me to be basic.” Initially, Fleit kept her condition secret, wearing wigs and skipping dance or gymnastics classes, for fear that the wigs might fall off. “I was hiding,” she says. “The wig covered who I really was.”

And then she met her first love: the theater.

It was in the theater that Fleit, like many others, found a place where she finally was able to not only acknowledge her dreams but pursue them, too. The theater and the people she found there allowed her to access previously untapped potential. Through their support, she discovered confidence and how to approach life for its possibilities — not problems.

“For the first time I was making friends who celebrated differences,” Fleit says. “They weren’t trying to be anyone else, they were trying to be uniquely themselves. And that was a revelation for me.”

She went on to study theater management and production at Ithaca College, and as a sophomore she stopped wearing a wig, switching to bandanas and turbans. After producing films for a stint, Fleit became chief creative officer at Honor, a dramatic and feminine fashion line worn by the likes of Jessica Alba, Taylor Swift and other celebrities. As Honor’s CCO, she worked hard, directed more films, and ultimately found an art form that helped her take new steps toward her dream.

Today Fleit works at Killer Films Media, creating short-form content for brands and pursuing her personal project, Barbara and Stanley, a documentary and narrative film about the long distance love between two very unique and different individuals.
“[My alopecia] created this heightened sensitivity to people in my life,” she continues. “I was always thinking in the back of my head ‘Well, everyone has something. What’s your thing?’ I was always thinking what that could be with another person. From a filmmaking standpoint, I’m always trying to uncover the truth and get to the core of what makes [people] unique.”

Rachel Fleit, who once hid behind wigs, is now bringing her dream to life behind a camera. Her work lets her be a fearless voice for others and their stories, and her physical difference now serves as a source of strength and confidence. “My grandmother always said to me everyone has a ‘thing.’ Something they’re ashamed about or hiding from people that makes them different. My thing just happens to be on the outside.

“[My alopecia] created this heightened sensitivity to people in my life,” she continues. “I was always thinking in the back of my head ‘Well, everyone has something. What’s your thing?’ I was always thinking what that could be with another person. From a filmmaking standpoint, I’m always trying to uncover the truth and get to the core of what makes [people] unique.”

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American Family Insurance believes that every dream – and dreamer – deserves support. It’s why we’re so passionate about going far beyond insurance to inspire, protect and restore your dreams.

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