The Southern Cross The Southern Cross

Read the latest edition. Latest edition

Maddie's story of hope


On the same day she graduated from university, Madeleine Kelly boarded a plane headed for Africa, to work in a school for underprivileged kids. After nearly six years in Tanzania she has now returned to Adelaide, grateful for the life-changing experience and armed with her first published book.

Print article

When the world watched on in horror as the 9/11 tragedy unfolded, seven-year-old Maddie Kelly sat with her Year 2 classmates at St David’s School listening intently to her teacher’s urgings to ‘share their feelings’ about what had happened.

‘Anything you feel is okay. Anything you want to do is fine – it might be just to say a quiet prayer. Or you might want to write a letter to the President of the United States…’

Already showing an interest in social justice issues and caring for those in need, young Maddie decided to take up the latter suggestion. That evening she found her best stationery and penned a letter of condolence to George W Bush.

Her mum Marie popped it into an envelope, addressed it to The White House, Washington DC, and to the surprise of everyone, a few months later Maddie received a letter of thanks, signed by the President.

Fast forward 20 years and Maddie continues to take action, recently penning her first book about a school in eastern Africa that is transforming the lives of children in poverty.

The School that Hope Built relates the short history of the School of St Jude, which was established by Australian Gemma Sisia in 2002.

From humble beginnings with only three students enrolled and one volunteer teacher, the private school has grown over the years to now include three campuses with more than 1800 students. Competition for the free education is fierce and students must pass an entrance exam and meet the ‘poverty assessment’ before being offered a full scholarship.

Fittingly, graduates of the school are now ‘giving back’ and helping to change the face of Tanzania – through their jobs as doctors, engineers, teachers, in agriculture and STEM occupations, and trades.

A former student at St Aloysius College and now back as its Communications officer and Justice and Mercy coordinator, Maddie was part of the St Jude’s story for nearly six years.

In 2016, only hours after her university graduation ceremony, she headed for Tanzania to take up a role in St Jude’s marketing and communications team. When her contract finished two years later she wasn’t ready to go home so began establishing the alumni department and continued to help the community as COVID closed the doors of the school. She then accepted an invitation to write a book about the history of St Jude’s.

At the launch of Maddie’s book on June 7 at St Aloysius College, more than 170 family, friends, old scholars and donors gathered to celebrate the literary achievements of the 29 year old.

Maddie’s former English teacher Elizabeth Boylan spoke of her student’s commitment to social justice issues as a teenager and her involvement with Fred’s Van, Edmund Rice Camps and the Salvos to name a few.

Parents John Kelly and Marie Kenny also noted the three qualities of their daughter – her faith, persistence and resilience, and ability to communicate – that made her so suitable for working at St Jude’s.

While initially concerned that Maddie had decided to follow her dream in a somewhat volatile part of the world, they said they always supported her commitment to make the world a better place.

As a retired schoolteacher, dad John said he felt qualified to say that Maddie’s book was an “enjoyable and instructive read” about the “remarkable” growth of the school.

“The school that encourages belief that dreams can become realities in a world that urgently needs this encouragement,” he said.

Maddie described writing the story of St Jude’s as a “labour of love” and paid tribute to the Sisters of Mercy, in particular Sr Meredith Evans, for their guidance.

“Mercy has underpinned everything I do and I feel so incredibly blessed to have been educated by the Sisters,” she said.

She also praised Gemma, “a true force for good in this world”, and graduate Enock Ephrahim for being a “beacon of hope for what is possible if you never give up or surrender to adversity”.

Maddie Kelly (right) in Tanzania with Catherine, one of St Jude’s bus drivers.

Speaking at the launch, Enock, whose story is featured in the book, said receiving a scholarship in Grade 2 at St Jude’s had changed his life.

“One of the surprises was getting a proper school uniform and shoes. I had my own desk and chair and got to use a computer for the first time. Also I had three meals a day when I joined the boarding school,” he explained.

A member of the first graduating class in 2015, Enock outlined how he took a gap year undertaking community service in the alumni department at St Jude’s. A majority of graduates similarly take a year off, serving as teachers at public schools before leaving Tanzania for their tertiary studies.

Enock secured a full scholarship at the University of Rochester, New York, and studied finance, commerce and business. Away for four years, his thoughts were never far from home.

“When I graduated I always knew I wanted to go back to Tanzania,” he said.

“Of course, I came back to St Jude’s and now I work in the alumni department helping other students secure international scholarships. My dream is to help build a very strong alumni association that brings serious change for the school, for our whole community, Tanzania and the continent as a whole.”

Congratulating Maddie on the book, Gemma stressed the important role Australians play in keeping the School of St Jude running.

This year alone the school has a budget of US$8.2 million and relies completely on donations, 90 per cent of which come from Australia.

The School that Hope Built by Madeleine Kelly is published by Allen & Unwin. For more information about the School of St Jude go to

More People stories

Loading next article