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School of St Jude - a tale of hope

Opinion

Three years ago, at the age of 23, Maddie Kelly boarded a plane bound for Arusha, Tanzania, and began working in the School of St Jude. Here she writes about her experiences, including the impact of COVID-19 on the local community.

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Tanzania. Arusha is a bustling town near the slopes of Mount Meru. Therein lies the School of St Jude, an institution providing 1800 of the community’s poorest and brightest young people with free, quality education, where I’ve now worked for more than three years.

The school’s founding director, Gemma Sisia, originally hails from Armidale in New South Wales. She has been transforming lives since 2002, when the school gates first opened. Gemma built her dream of fighting poverty through education with generous help from swathes of volunteers, most of whom were Australians and many were teams of Rotarians.

Angela, then aged 20, was a volunteer teacher. Her first class had three students – that’s because Gemma, at the time, could only find three sponsors.

Things have since changed.

Today, donors and sponsors from around the world fund the project, operating on an annual budget of approximately AU$7 million. Ninety per cent of funding comes from Australia.

Angela is now Gemma’s deputy director. The pair oversees approximately 300 staff, just seven of whom are foreigners, including myself.

The school has successfully weathered many storms…perhaps that’s thanks, in part, to its namesake, St Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.

The school currently faces its biggest challenge yet – addressing COVID-19. Annually, Gemma travels to Australia for a promotional tour. I join her to assist with logistics and fundraising. This year, bans on public gatherings and border closures forced us to cancel the tour and return immediately to Tanzania.

During transit back to East Africa, Tanzania’s first case of COVID-19 was announced and the Tanzanian Government closed all schools for an indefinite period.

I then entered a 14-day period of self-quarantine, and realised the depth of my connection to Arusha and its people.

When out for village walks, I pause to reflect on my surroundings – a moving postcard. Children freely roam and play, the smell of chapatti wafts from charcoal stoves. I’m often followed for miles by the same, protective, limping dog.

Then, there’s another side. The view of crippling poverty. Mud houses, underfed children, barrow wheelers and beggars.

I see these people, and then, I think of St Jude’s students.

When watching them play and learn in smart, blue uniforms, it’s easy to forget that they, too, come from destitution. That, if it weren’t for St Jude’s, they might be begging in the street.

In April’s final weeks our staff gathered to perform a mammoth operation: assembling and distributing COVID-19 Family Care Packages to students. Our yellow bus fleet criss-crossed several regions distributing the packages. Many families are suffering job losses and wage cuts. Our care packages included staple foods, soap, hand sanitiser, bleach, study packs and exercise books.

We launched a mini-appeal to fund the packages. Unfortunately, St Jude’s has lost donors and sponsors due to financial hardship this year, though it was heartening that many were willing to support this initiative.

Separately, I launched my own challenge: Chop the Mop for St Jude’s. I had tresses of thick, curly hair, reaching my waist. I vowed, if I raised AU$5000 for the school, to shave it off. I’ve so far reached AU$3500 but decided to bare my scalp regardless. You can still donate to the GoFundMe campaign at this link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/shave-for-st-judes

In times of hardship, we rely on stories of hope. The School of St Jude is testament to the notion that, indeed, no cause is hopeless. In the end, we are a universal family, here to serve each other.

Maddie Kelly is a former St Aloysius College student and Social Justice coordinator.

 

 

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