Educating for big dreams and the power of possibility

Recently Monica Scanlon travelled with her family to Africa and had the privilege of meeting Gemma Sisia, founder of The School of St Jude’s in Tanzania. Monica shares her encounter.

Many of us dream of changing the lives of others for the better. Gemma Sisia is living this dream. The school she founded offers free, high quality education which she believes should be the right of all the world’s children. I have long been inspired by Gemma. Her life bears some parallels with mine. We both grew up in Catholic families, were educated at Catholic schools in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and have a tribe of brothers but no sisters. She is only a few years younger than I and my first child is named Gemma. Gemma Sisia’s story has fascinated me and I had a longing to meet her.  

After finishing her schooling at St Vincent's, Potts Point, Gemma completed a university degree, then met a nun who invited her to work in a school in Uganda.  This was the origin of the dream which she freely admits was naïve.

Returning from Uganda, Gemma worked for three years in Australia, hearing many sarcastic comments about her goal. Over a milkshake, her friend Agnes Hanna told her to go for it, and gave her the first donation of $10. Gemma could give the money back or use it. With $10, no building experience beyond building a guinea pig cage in Year 9, no backing from an established organisation, she began raising funds. In time, with the support of friends, family and Rotary groups, the school was built. 

Gemma believes her desire to build a school had a lot to do with her parents.  She was raised, with her seven brothers, on a sheep property west of Guyra. Her parents sacrificed everything to send their children to private schools. 

Gemma grew up in a conservative Catholic family. They prayed to St Anthony if they lost something and to St Christopher for safe travels.  At 14, Gemma told her Grandma she thought saints were a lot of hot air. Grandma said to pray to St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases! Gemma now says she has a "direct line to the man".

Gemma married Richard, a local Tanzanian she met on safari. In 1998 his father gifted Gemma land to build her school. She imagined it would be easy to find children to enrol if she gave them free education and she imagined every Australian would want to sponsor them. Initially she couldn’t find sponsors and had three students enrolled in 2002.  She asked the leaders of the biggest churches − Muslim, Lutheran and Catholic – for assistance. The children they sent were related to the leaders rather than the poorest of the poor. Gemma needed to find kids who were poor and who had the desire for education and a willingness to work.  The mission of the school − to fight poverty through education − evolved. Last year 7000 six and seven-year-olds applied for 67 positions at the school.  

Gemma meets challenges daily. She makes sure her meetings always finish with a solution. Ten years ago the teachers were volunteers. Now the school employs Tanzanian staff as the goal is localisation. Maintaining the calibre of staff is always a challenge to ensure the students’ education is never compromised. 

With almost 1,800 students, St Jude’s is always looking at ways to use donations more efficiently.

Graduates of St Jude’s can give back to the community for a year, in gratitude for their free education, before proceeding to university. Most of the students doing community service work in government schools are teachers of Maths, Science, English or Business. Some are the only educated teacher of their subject in their schools. Having just completed their schooling at St Jude’s they are given a two-week ‘crash course’ in teaching and then find themselves in front of a class of 70-80 students, with some teachers later becoming Heads of Departments. 

This community service has meant that more children are helped in a country that is doing it tough. Often the teachers at government schools lack passion, are unhappy and do not know how to help. Unlike St Jude's where the students are fed, children in government schools often have no food at all. Many parents, living on less than US$2 per day, are unable to provide the essentials for their children and sometimes 90 students share a textbook! 

Through the work of St Jude’s the poverty cycle is being broken. When means-tested, 80% of the families of the graduates would now ‘fail’ the poverty test they passed to qualify for St Jude's. This is because the pupils teach their parents and siblings English and help siblings with schoolwork. English-speaking Tanzanians have the potential to quadruple their income. The goal at the end of their schooling is for students to be independent, no longer financially dependent on the school.

St Jude’s makes a visible difference to a huge number of students, their families and generations of Tanzanians to come. Student Gerald, 19, said, “Everyone loves Gemma. She risked everything for our sakes for free quality education. I am so grateful because other students in Tanzania live in very poor environments and can’t afford to pay for school. Government schools are not so good and concentrate only on urban schools so in the village you will never get a good education. There are no desks, no books and teachers don't like to go to villages. Good teachers go to private schools with better salaries and social services. In the villages you go miles to find water and there is one shop. I am so happy to be here as it has changed my life completely. I will help my family. My family were the happiest ever in the universe when I was chosen as a student at St Jude’s.”

My family was warmly welcomed to St Jude’s.  When there is a tourism downturn, St Jude's suffers as staff have to be dismissed.  Gemma lives with Richard and their four children in Tanzania.  She encourages youth to “dream big” and believes in possibilities.

My family’s visit to St Jude’s included a question and answer session with Gemma, attending art and music classes, participating in the weekly assembly, visiting a home, sharing lunch and play with the students and meeting volunteers, staff and other visitors. The spirt of the school is uplifting.  We participated in an amazing safari organised through Safaris R Us which supports the school.  Although Africa is ticked on my bucket list, I hope to return to St Jude’s one day.

Please visit St Jude's School. A copy of St Jude’s by Gemma Sisia (2007) is available to borrow at St Laurence Centre Library.

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