GEMMA Sisia was a 22-year-old country girl when she left for Africa with plans of becoming a nun or a missionary.
Gemma fell in love, and started a new mission – educating the poorest children in Tanzania. In 2002, and starting with three pupils, Gemma set up a school in Tanzania called The School of St Jude – named after the patron saint of hopeless causes.
Gemma’s incredible exploits are well documented.
She has featured on ABC TV’s Australian Story twice.
And in 2007 she was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal for her achievements with St Jude’s.
Gemma’s plan of becoming a nun went awry just months after arriving in Africa when she went on safari across the Serengeti Plains and met Tanzanian man Richard Sisia, her guide.
Gemma decided to stay in Africa and, looking for a project in her new homeland, she began collecting $5 a month from friends and family to sponsor two girls at a convent school in Uganda.
Gemma and Richard married – in a unique Catholic-Masai ceremony – and when Richard’s father, a Masai chief, donated a small block of land in neighbouring Tanzania, the idea of establishing a school took hold.
A $15 million donation from a visiting couple of American philanthropists turned the vision of a school into bricks and mortar.
From those humble and remarkable beginnings, the school now offers free education to almost 2000 impoverished students, and has one of the best academic records in the country.
St Jude’s is an astonishing success for kids who would otherwise have no hope and no future. However the school relies on ongoing generosity. Ninety per cent of the school’s funding comes from Australians who sign up to sponsor a child, or donate in other ways.
Gemma is coming to Brisbane this month as part of a nationwide fundraising tour. Accompanying her will be one of St Jude’s high achievers, Dorice Livingstone, to show her appreciation and share what a difference St Jude’s is making in Tanzania.
Bubbly and bright, Dorice joined St Jude’s after finishing in the top 10 per cent of a government primary school, and has been using her high-quality education to give back to the community as a biology teacher.
“When I was in a government school it was hard,” Dorice said.
“Sometimes the teacher was at class; sometimes she wasn’t.
“We spent from morning until night without any food and we didn’t have any books.
“Because I was at St Jude’s (in high school) I passed Form 4 (Year 10) very well and Form 6 very well.”
Just 2.4 per cent of the 1.63 million Tanzanian students who enrolled in their first year of school with Dorice completed their secondary schooling.
Dorice and her female classmates, who make up more than 50 per cent of the St Jude’s population, are vital to a thriving future in Tanzania.
Women receiving a first-rate education help break the cycle of poverty, are less likely to die in childbirth or marry early and against their will, and are more likely to have healthy children that they send to school.
This final point was key as UNICEF’s latest figures show only 24.4 per cent of females attend secondary school in Tanzania.
According to United Nations figures, most girls in Tanzania have left school by their 12th birthday, and more than one in 10 will have a baby by age 19.
St Jude’s is playing a leading role in turning these trends around.
Not only did Dorice’s graduating class rank in the top 10 per cent nationally, all of them passed and more than half of them achieved the highest possible mark.
The past year has been a particularly special one for Dorice and Gemma, who want to share their story and express the entire St Jude community’s gratitude, when they visit Brisbane.
“The School of St Jude now has almost 2000 students who have a real chance to escape poverty and receive a high-quality, life-changing education,” Gemma said. “It’s a dream that I’ve worked hard on building for more than 15 years now, and these amazing students and their families would never have had the opportunity without the wonderful support of so many Australians.
“I’m especially proud of our graduates, who are earning rave reviews as they volunteer at local government schools.
“I can’t wait to introduce Dorice to Australia.”
Gemma and Dorice will be speaking at fundraising events in Ballina, Brisbane and Toowoomba from April 11-15.
A fundraising dinner will be held at the Brisbane Marriott Hotel on Wednesday, April 13, from 6.30pm. Tickets are $90 per person.
For more details go to http://www.schoolofstjude.org/about-us/calendar.html.