Philanthropist Annabelle Chauncy, who operates two schools in Uganda and in 2015 received the Medal of the Order of Australia for the charity she founded, speaking at a ULI Australia event in Sydney.

As she shared with attendees of a recent ULI Australia event in Sydney, the project had its fair share of obstacles.

One was the intransigence of the Ugandan minister for education. Chauncy said that she sat outside his office for six weeks before getting any kind of response.

“One day he walked past me in the corridor and I just grabbed him, and I said, ‘Sir, you’ve got to help us! We want to build this school!’ And he looked at me and he said, ‘Look here, your place isn’t in business, it’s in the kitchen.’” But Chauncy’s persistence eventually paid off, and she opened her first classroom in January 2001.

Chauncy spoke of her upbringing in Canyonleigh, New South Wales, southwest of Sydney. “Wide-open spaces, 2,000 acres [809 ha].” With two older brothers, Chauncy said, “I rode horses and motorbikes and I was pretty wild. But I think I had to be to keep up, you know. A really rough-and-tumble little family.”

The primary school she went to was very small: just four children in her class, and 26 in the entire school. Her mother was the teacher. “I learned from a really young age the power of education and its transformative impact on your life.” At her high school—where the motto was “In love, serve one another”—she learned something else: that giving back feels good.

“My school was very much based 50 percent around service and giving back, and 50 on achievement. So, we used to do things for the wider community and it enriched in me a value of service. So, we’d do things like writing for the disabled, Meals-on-Wheels, visiting elderly centers [which was awesome, it meant we got to eat lamingtons with the old people]. But it instilled in me a value of service, and it felt really good to give back and to help other people.”

When she reached the end of high school, she didn’t know what to do but suggested becoming a social worker to her father. Chauncy said he encouraged her to pursue a law degree first, and she enrolled in an arts/law degree at the prestigious University of Sydney. But she found the environment at the institution alienating, and after a year of study deferred her degree and bought a ticket to Kenya.

One of the school sites in Uganda.

“So here I was with my long skirt, my joggers, my bumbag—and that bumbag seriously had every pharmaceutical in it known to man: there was malaria tablets, there was paracetamol, you name it, I had it. I reckon I could single-handedly have solved a health care crisis in Kenya with that one bumbag. But I was there, and I was ready, and I was so excited. I was ready to roll my sleeves up and do whatever I could do to help children.”

Within six weeks, she was hospitalized with a stomach infection caused by contaminated water. After she recovered, civil war flared up and she fled to neighboring Uganda, a country the same size as the Australian state of Victoria but with a population of 42 million. “Fifty percent of those 42 million people are aged under 14,” Chauncy went on. “I was startled, shocked, blown away, couldn’t believe how many people there were running around. Only 50 percent of kids complete primary school.” Determined to make a difference, she went from project to project, including teaching, until it dawned on her that she should build a school.

“I couldn’t believe that these kids were walking five to 15 kilometers [3 to 9 miles] every day on an empty stomach to get to the mud hut that they called school because they were so determined to get an education. And I thought to myself in that moment, ‘It’s so unfair. It can be so unfair where you’re born. It can have such a huge impact on the life and the choices that you can have.’”

She returned to Sydney and finished her degree, much to the relief of her parents, and then with friend Dave Everett, whom she had met in Africa, she established School for Life. She went through the process of setting up the charity, then scheduled a fundraiser at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney.

“I promised the Hilton 400 people, it was going to be a raging success, we were going to raise $100,000,” she said. “Two weeks out, we’d sold 43 tickets. And I was stressing, so I jumped on the phone [and called] everyone I’d ever met and I managed somehow to fill this room. And on that night, 650 people turned up, and we raised $100,000.”

Back in Africa, she wore down the education minister and then went about buying land for the school.

“I was finding all these pieces of land, but it’s old-system title in Uganda. And the trouble is, there’s no electronic system. All the titles are pieces of paper and they’re all kept in one office, so you’ve got to go in and find this piece of paper. Thirty-four people were on the title to this land, and so I needed to get 34 people to agree to sign off on the sale of the land.

“Then, in Uganda, 3,000 shillings equals $1 and you can only do transactions in cash, so no such thing as electronic funds transfer. So, when we transacted, this land cost $16,500 and—I mean it when I say it—we were transacting in wheelbarrows and suitcases of cash. We were sitting in a bank just counting out trillions of shillings, and finally we had this piece of land and we started to build.”

She set about assembling the team she would need to build her first school. She found a woman named Jennifer to be the principal. She had had designs prepared by an architect in Sydney, but now she needed to implement her plans on the ground in Africa. “And I had to stop, and I had to listen and sometimes it’s hard when you are so passionate about something, to listen, and let them lead.”

Everything for the school was made by hand, from the bricks that made up the walls to the toilets that had to be dug in the earth.

“And it came to life, and in January 2011 our first classrooms opened for the very first time.” She indicated a photo on the screen at the front of the room. “You can see here a colorful, vibrant, happy, and positive learning environment. One where I would be proud to send my own child to. And I wanted our kids to have every opportunity—the same as what we have over here.”

She was still learning, though. She often had to teach the children to tie their shoes, or hold a pencil, because they were unused to such innovations. She showed the room a picture of a special-needs teacher teaching two children—Pauline and Pius—to sign with their hands. The school also takes in adults who want an education.

The second school Chauncy built was funded by the Cotton-On Foundation.

Not every plan was successful, of course. A scheme to make ethical clothing to sell in developed countries failed because the market was flooded with similar products. The women who had been brought on for this were reassigned to making school uniforms for new students. A piggery was jettisoned because it turned out to be economically unviable.

“I’m not in the business of running abattoirs, I’m in the business of building schools. So, it’s important sometimes to look at the way you’re shaping the business and make really difficult decisions. It’s not always popular, but it is always necessary.”

Chauncy also revealed that she has a group of mentors around her who “lift you higher.” She said: “I’ve got this incredible network of mentors around me. If you don’t have a mentor, I would suggest getting one.”