When Annabelle Chauncy OAM BA '07 LLB '10 took time from her studies out to volunteer with an aid organisation in Africa, she didn't foresee the Kenyan crisis erupting that would force her to evacuate to neighbouring Uganda.
"I basically just had to wander around and figure out what to do," Annabelle says. She talked to people, asked what they needed - and listened. "The residing thing for me was that education is something you simply can't take away from someone," she says.
"Even if a child has two years of education, that's going to change their life."
Thus the idea for the School for Life was born. Annabelle and fellow student David Everett OAM established Katuuso Primary and Vocational School in 2011. From an initial enrolment of 80 children there will soon be three schools welcoming 560 children - and transforming thousands of lives.
This may read like a tidy upward trajectory, but life in developing countries doesn't work like that. Just getting started came with all kinds of challenges such as raising funds, acquiring land, building classrooms and negotiating with government.
Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws in 2009, Annabelle says her degree helps her navigate a highly complex environment.
"Sydney Uni has set me up with the footing and the foundation for every part of the business we're now running," she says. "From setting up the constitution to getting the governance right, through to the corporate side of the law, contracts, all the everyday things that you use in a business have come in so handy."
She traces her negotiating and leadership skills back to her arts degree, which helped her understand how government works and foreign aid is delivered. The school's first cohort of children came with unanticipated issues: they had never worn shoes, never seen a book or a pencil, did not know about hand washing or tooth brushing. "We thought education was going to be the priority," Annabelle says.
"But the kids were falling asleep at their desks because they didn't have enough food, so then we started feeding them three meals a day." This back-to-basics shift led to community-wide engagement. The school now grows sustainable crops and has a piggery and goat farm.
There's a health clinic, solar electricity and clean-water tanks. And there are 25 teacher houses to attract and retain the best teachers. "It's the beating heart of the community," Annabelle says. Annabelle shares two anecdotes that encapsulate the school's transformative effect. The first stars the school cleaner, who was desperately saving up to become a teacher. Annabelle found her a scholarship to university. "Now she's one of our strongest teachers," she says.
Then there's Joyce, an eight-year-old with epilepsy. The local community, with its strong belief in witchcraft, took her thrice-daily fits to mean she was possessed.
"We take a light-touch approach," Annabelle says. "We're not saying you can't believe that, we're just giving people access to more information so they can make up their own minds."
Healthcare and education eased the family's fears and liberated Joyce to come to school. Annabelle's vision is of creating a sustainable model that can be replicated across the developing world.
"We've taken a crawl-before- you-walk and walk-before-you-run approach to growth," she says.
"We've created manageable goals. It's been organic growth, responsive to the needs of the community."
Annabelle works gruelling hours that preclude a personal life, yet she radiates the kind of happiness that only comes from helping others. "The part I love most is being in Uganda and seeing lives changed," she says. "It really is such a positive and beautiful place."
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