Three Minute Squiz With… Annabelle Chauncy

Keen Squizer Annabelle Chauncy is a social entrepreneur who started a foundation to educate children in rural Uganda at just 21yo. And over the last decade, School for Life has grown to be a sizeable team that’s educated thousands of Ugandan kids. A country NSW kid and lawyer by training, Annabelle has won more awards for her good works than we can point a stick at. Please welcome Annabelle to this week’s Three Minute Squiz.

How and where do you Squiz?
It’s the first thing I read on my phone when I wake up every morning.

You are the founder of not-for-profit foundation, School for Life. Give us the lowdown on what you and the team are doing to transform communities in Uganda.
We run three schools in the rural Ugandan locality of Mpigi, an hour-and-a-half west of Uganda’s capital Kampala. To date we have raised more than A$7 million and mobilised the support of thousands of people around the world who have helped us impact the lives of tens of thousands of people through building three schools (two primary and one high school) and educate more than 1,000 students annually; employing more than 110 adults in related roles; providing vocational training skills such as agriculture, adult literacy, beekeeping, shoe making and tailoring; providing three nutritious meals a day for all our staff and students (we serve >600,000 meals a year!); providing millions of litres of clean drinking water to the surrounding communities for free; building two health clinics with full-time nurses and counsellors.

Why Uganda?
In 2007, I decided to put my law degree on hold for six months to do a volunteer program. I ended up in Kenya teaching English to children when there was an election coup. I was evacuated across the border to Uganda. When I reached Uganda I was blown away. It’s a country the same size as the Australian state of Victoria yet it has a population of 43 million people, 50% of whom are aged under 14 years. Just 56% of people complete primary school and a paltry 17% of the population completes high school. Despite these overwhelming statistics, children would walk between 5-10 kms to get to school, mostly on an empty stomach, without shoes on their feet, to attend a classroom that’s a mud hut, with no access to learning resources, desks, pens, pencils and often 100 to a class with a single teacher. Yet they arrive with huge smiles on their faces and a passion and desire to learn because they know education will break them free from the cycle of poverty. I knew there and then that education is a never-ending gift. It’s transformational and has a ripple effect from the individual, to the family, to wider society. I just love it.

It’s been more than 10 years since you started School for Life. Looking back, what are you most proud of?
Seeing the progress in the children and how much they have grown and their health has improved. And how huge the impact of being at school has had not only on their lives, but on the lives of their entire family and the community. The gift of education is truly transformational.

Your primary role in building the foundation has been based in Australia generating the funding required to run it. What has been the biggest challenge?
In Australia, building the business and ensuring there are enough funds raised to support the growth has been tough at times. Charity is a competitive space in Australia and there are so many competing, worthy causes out there. I knock on doors constantly and get knocked back but you’ve got to remain resilient and keep looking for great opportunities for mutual benefit. And being a female in business in Uganda is really challenging – negotiating a patriarchal and at times corrupt environment to get the business off the ground and keep it running. I have learnt to empower local people to own and run the schools, get in and deeply listen to what is required, so we can provide sustainable solutions to complex social issues.

There are obviously so many differences between life for children in Uganda and life in Australia. We’re interested if you’ve discovered any universal similarities?
Kids are kids globally. You get the class clown distracting everyone, the smart one up the front answering all the questions, the kids that want to succeed, the ones that are challenged and the ones that are challenging. Ultimately they have a deep sense of wonder and curiosity, they have beginners’ minds that question the way the world works. I love the purity and intrigue of watching kids learn things for the very first time.

What’s next?
The future would be 30 schools globally educating 10,000 children. We are currently fundraising for a girls’ boarding school facility to ensure our High School students get a full course of education. Our kids come from mud huts with no access to electricity, running water or basic human needs. I see education as a long term investment and to get an amazing product at the end, we need to ensure we are able to set the students up for success. By boarding our girls, we will increase retention rates, be able to conduct extra curricular activities and look after their health and wellbeing.

What does your ideal weekend look like?
Going home to my family farm where I grew up, spending time with my family (especially my gorgeous nieces and nephews), a long run through the bush and a nice long lunch with a good wine! Second to that is heading to the beach. I find salt water invigorating!

Name four people – living or dead – you’d love to sit down to dinner with?
Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Mohammed Yunus and Leonardo Di Vinci.

Your favourite book/writer?
Unmasked by Turia Pitt. I have the deepest level of respect for her – she’s a true hero.

The best piece of advice you’ve been given? 
Crawl before you walk, and walk before you run.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Obedience. If you follow every rule you might never get anything done.

What’s your worst and best habit?
Being a perfectionist.

What would you say is currently the most overlooked news story Australians should know about but don’t?
Good news stories from Africa. The media is full of tales of famine, poverty, war and disease. The Africa I know is full of people with inspiring stories of resilience in the face of adversity and I would love those stories shared more often.

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