Annabelle Chauncy is the sort of person you would love your child to emulate. The founder of the School for Life, which educates hundreds of children in Uganda, was raised in Canyonleigh and talks to ESH about hard work, the value of education and bringing purpose to your life.
You grew up in Canyonleigh? I had the most amazing childhood on a sheep and cattle farm with my mum, dad and two brothers. It was filled with outdoor adventures like building cubby houses in the trees, building veggie gardens, riding my Shetland pony and motorbikes, and helping Dad with work in the sheep and cattle yards.
Do you still have family connections there? Mum and Dad still live there and my brother and sister-in-law have a property in Sutton Forest. My grandma, who was a big influence, is in a nursing home in the Highlands. She contracted polio as a child and was told she would never walk again, ride horses or have children. She defied all the odds with her determination and resilience. She had two children, she rode horses and she walked. No one was going to get in her way! She also has a Medal of the Order of Australia for her service to people with disabilities.
Where did the desire to do something remarkable with your life come from? I come from a family with strong values of respect, hard work, integrity, grit and positivity. I knew that nothing worth having comes easy and that you can’t expect things to happen without hard work and determination. Mum has been my teacher throughout my life, starting at the tiny Sutton Forest Primary School. I then went to Frensham as a weekly boarder. Mum had a job at Gib Gate and Frensham while I was there. She’s still there now. Frensham was absolutely instrumental in me setting up School for Life. Its motto is ‘In Love Serve One Another’.
How did School for Life begin? When I left Frensham I ended up studying Arts/Law but found it difficult to find purpose in my legal studies. I worked part time in a law firm and knew then I wasn’t going to be passionate about a career as a lawyer. So I signed up to a three month volunteer program teaching English to children in Kenya. It changed my life. I taught English (badly!) to children who spoke only Swahili, witnessed pure joy from children who have absolutely nothing, and saw the deep values of community and sharing from people who would literally give you the shirt off their back.
When did you think, ‘I have to do something!’? I was teaching English to children in a mud hut with a scratched out blackboard and no pens or pencils. The kids didn’t have uniforms, books or desks. Many had walked up to 15 kilometres with no shoes on and an empty stomach to get there. But they did so with smiles on their faces and determination. They wanted to be educated. I knew in that moment that I could use my time, talent and networks to do something to help others. I realised my law degree was about something so much bigger.
What does School for Life look like today? We currently have two primary schools and one high school in Uganda. We are educating 680 students and about to enrol another 320. We are also in the early stages of partnering with another amazing organisation operating in Uganda with the same model. Our schools are holistic community development models, and include provision for clean water, health care, vocational training and employment opportunities to lift entire communities out of poverty. I would love to see School for Life educating 10,000 kids across the developing world in at least 30 schools.
How do the schools help the communities? We employ 78 full time staff: teachers, nurses, counsellors, cooks, cleaners, and maintenance, security and support staff, plus 50 extra part time staff when we are building. All of these staff are Ugandan, with as many from the local area as possible. We also provide scholarships to four staff a year to go back to university for upskilling.
You have achieved many accolades for your work, including an Order of Australia. The awards are beautiful acknowledgements of the hard work I put into School for Life, but for me it’s about the children. I see tangible and real change with the dollars I raise. It is remarkable to see a child learn who otherwise may have been pregnant aged 13, or working on the family’s subsistence farm.
How do you find work/life balance? It can be a struggle, but I try to dedicate weekends to spending time with my partner, Marc, and my family and friends. Marc and I met when he volunteered to upskill our foreman on the construction site in Uganda. He believes in School for Life and the difference we are making, which makes it easy.
When you’re home where do you always like to visit? I’m partial to a delicious Gumnut Patisserie sausage roll or lemon citron cake. I love supporting locals. I am always excited when I see small businesses succeed due to hard work and determination. Highlands Merchant in Moss Vale is a personal fave. And Suzie Anderson Home.
How can we help support School for Life? The best thing is to sponsor a child for $42 a month. Our charity is so small that the money makes a remarkable difference in the life of the child and their family. We also have a Mount Kosciuszko climb scheduled in April, which is a great opportunity to get your family fit whilst fundraising, and our 10 Year Anniversary Gala will be held on May 4 at The Star in Sydney.
What is your message to Australian children? You are one person but one person can make a difference. We all have the ability to create positive change.