Annabelle Chauncy OAM is the founding director and CEO of the not-for-profit organisation, School for Life. Annabelle and her team work with communities in rural Uganda to build primary and secondary schools and vocational training centres. Along with providing employment and healthcare solutions, with the aim to empower communities to help themselves and create their own opportunities. Annabelle has received many accolades and awards throughout her career including an Order of Australia Medal, one of Australia’s highest honours.
Growing up in rural New South Wales, Annabelle attended small country schools where service and giving back were a big part of their ethos.
“When I was in High School, our School’s motto was ‘In Love Serve One Another’, the ethos was based 50% on academic achievement and 50% on giving back to the community.”
“We participated in volunteer activities like Duke of Edinburgh, Riding for the Disabled and Meals on Wheels. We visited elderly people in aged care facilities and helped out in soup kitchens.”
These experiences awakened in Annabelle a desire to serve and help those less fortunate.
“I loved the feeling I got when I helped other people and truly felt at home when I was doing so.”
When Annabelle left school her passion for helping others remained strong and she decided to study Law at Sydney University with the goal of working for the UN to continue giving back and make a real difference to communities across the globe.
With the determination and academic excellence to match, she was well on track to achieve this goal when she decided to take a 6 month break from her studies to volunteer in Kenya teaching children english.
“It was this experience that changed my life forever.”
“I was 21, bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to roll my sleeves up to make a difference. Shortly after arriving however, Kenya erupted into civil war and I was evacuated into Uganda.”
Detached from any formal program Annabelle set out independently to see those in need. Volunteering for orphanages, painting and refurbishing classrooms and teaching english to school children.
“I was astounded by how happy the children were, despite the significant hardships they were facing.”
“Many would walk between 5 and 10 kilometres everyday to get to the mud hut they called school, where there were often 100 kids in a classroom without desks, pens or pencils, or books.”
"The children didn’t have uniforms, most arrived to study without having eaten a meal that day and they didn’t have shoes on their feet.”
“Despite these huge challenges, they all turned up with smiles on their faces, determined to learn because they know that education will break them free from the cycle of poverty.”
“These experiences awakened in me a desire to do something to help. I knew I was one person but I also knew that I had time, skills and networks that I could use to do something.”
Having witnessed first-hand the huge impact grass-roots development can have on communities Annabelle initially sought to partner with existing organisations currently working in Uganda but was unable to find one that aligned exactly with her values and personal philosophy.
“I wanted to create a replicable and sustainable model for international development that could create real and long lasting change.”
“There’s nothing more sustainable than giving someone the skills and capacity to do the job themselves.”
So she began to explore creating her own charity focusing on rural communities in Uganda where she saw the greatest need.
“Children in rural areas are often forced to do hard physical labour to help the family earn an income to support themselves.”
“I believe that children should be able to be children, to play, explore and have the freedom to dream and strive to be whatever and whoever they want to be.”
“Developing communities are fast moving, they have the capacity to change rapidly with even small investment and stimulus.”
In 2007, Annabelle met her co-founder Dave Everett in Kenya. United in their belief that education is the greatest tool for creating social change they created a sustainable model for development and began working hard to implement it. Founding School For Life in 2008.
“So many people told me I was doing my career around the wrong way, that charity is something you should do when you are finishing your career, not starting it.”
“I had half a law degree, a lot of passion and naivety. Many people told me to come back when I had grown up, but many others rallied behind me to support what I was doing.”
But with huge amounts of passion and determination, Annabelle continued to pursue her goal.
Overcoming hardships and challenges both practical and emotional.
“The level of poverty I’m dealing with in Uganda is deep and quite challenging. Until you’ve seen it, you don’t know what its like to live in a mud hut with 8 bothers and sisters, not knowing where your next meal is going to come from.”
“There have been some remarkable highs and some very low lows.”
“One of the biggest ones is when you lose a child - it feels like losing one of your own children.”
Annabelle’s naturally positive outlook and resilient, can-do attitude have seen her persevere through these hardships, overcoming every challenge placed in front of her.
By 2010, all the hard work had payed off and construction began on School For Life’s first classroom in Katuuso village. In 2011 Katuuso Primary and Vocational School (KPVS) officially opened, with 80 students enrolled.
This was a huge milestone for Annabelle.
"I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing - for many of the children, their uniform was the first piece of brand new clothing they had ever owned, they’d never learnt to do up buttons because they had never owned a shirt, or tied up shoelaces because they’d never worn shoes.”
“It was a steep learning curve, and while the kids were learning, I was learning so much as well.”
Through Annabelle’s passion and determination, School For Life continued to grow.
“I believe in the power of the individual, and I think that’s really important in this world.”
“Changing one person's life can have the ripple effect to go on to change their communities.”
As of 2016 School For Life now has 400 students enrolled across 2 campuses. 320 students at KPVS and 80 student at Riverside Mbazzi Secondary School. With more than 85 local staff employed as builders, teachers, cooks, cleaners, security and maintenance.
“I would love to see School for Life grow and scale, at least to build another 6 schools - more hopefully!”
“Mobilising communities out of poverty through the provision of quality education, clean water, health care, vocational training and other services.”
“I want to affect the lives of as many children as possible so that they can become the future leaders and role models of their society.”
Annabelle believes being Australian and growing up in Australia has helped her significantly in her journey as Australian are a naturally charitable people who believe in backing the underdog.
“We live in a global community that’s interconnected in many ways and I feel its important to help outside of just Australia.”
“I think one of the main benefits of getting involved in charities outside of Australia is that the dollar goes a really long way and can have a quick, tangible impact on people’s lives."
“There’s lots of ways you can make a difference - volunteering your time, donating or fundraising on behalf of an organisation, signing up to sponsor a child, taking on an adventure fundraising challenge or running a fun run or sporting challenge.”
“You’ll be surprised how amazing you feel when you make a difference in the life of someone else around you.”