Q & A with Gemma Sisia

A conversation with our Founder

Where did you grow up?

I was born November 3, 1971 and grew up on a wool sheep property in Armidale in northern New South Wales, Australia. I’m the only daughter among the eight children of Sue and Basil Rice. Mum still lives on the family property in Armidale, and a number of my brothers still live in the area.

Tell us about your upbringing, growing up on the land and in the New England region.

Growing up on a farm, we had 100,000 acres supporting around 80,000 sheep during the height of wool production, along with cattle, chickens and plenty of horses. I had a wonderful childhood with lots of rowdy brothers, mustering sheep and cattle on motorbikes and horses, going to agriculture shows to compete in horse events with the family, and lots of fishing and swimming in the waterfalls on the family property.

Growing up with seven brothers was interesting. I had to keep up with them from the day I was born, from being considered an equal in regards to what was expected from me regarding cattle work, sheep work to doing the biggest jumps on the horses and motorbikes.

But my parents also put a huge emphasis on our education and so I think I subconsciously absorbed that and in doing so felt that children from poor families should also have access to a good education, hence St Jude’s.

My mother strongly encouraged culture and so we were each expected to learn an instrument and attend elocution lessons. Doing our best always was expected by our parents but with seven brothers, we definitely had our competition also, which I think is good for character also. Finally having three younger brothers and being the only girl, I also learnt many of the more motherly, feminine traits like giving hugs, cooking and sewing to cutting hair.

From the age of four I took elocution lessons, which have served me well when speaking to large audiences about St Jude’s.
Gemma with her brothers.

Where did you go to school and university?

Most of my schooling was at Holy Trinity in Inverell and then I did years 11 and 12 at St Vincent’s College in Sydney. I earned a Science Degree, majoring in Biochemistry/Genetics at Melbourne University, an Honours in Science at the University of Northern Territory, and then a Diploma in Education at University of New England, Armidale.

Aside from school, I had a great practical education at home. Because we lived far from town we had to learn how to fix fences and plumbing or fixing the cars, sewing, cooking, baking chops, peas and potatoes and everything.

I learnt from an early age to find my own solutions to problems and that was a real blessing when I came to Tanzania.

What were the earliest influences on your work?

From as early as I can remember, my parents always did a lot of community service work and always had an open door policy at home for people wanting to come, stay, and have someone to listen to them. My parents constantly showed me how important is it to help others. They also sacrificed a lot personally to put me and my seven brothers through private schooling. As a result, I believe in the importance of a good education for my own four children, as well as the almost 2,000 kids at St Jude’s. I believe students in Africa need the best possible classrooms, playgrounds, and education that we can give them – as with any child in the world.

Another big influence is my experience in Uganda in the 90s which was the peak of the AIDS crisis. I was teaching and I probably lost half of my class because the student’s parents had passed away and they could no longer pay school fees.

Finally, my faith is a huge influence. Believing in God and having faith in Saint Jude has helped me get through tough times.

What inspired you to come to Africa?

In its earliest stages, my desire to help in Africa arose from the coverage of the famine in Ethiopia. After seeing images of starving children, I decided that I would work in any capacity to help the people in Africa who needed it the most.

After receiving my Diploma in Education, I volunteered at a girls' centre in Uganda, teaching math, science, and sewing. This experience would eventually pave my way to Tanzania and starting The School of St Jude.
Students at the school in Uganda.

How did you begin to set up The School of St Jude?

In my early 20s, I was teaching in Uganda and I became close friends with an art teacher who was called Gertrude. We were both losing students from our classes and we thought it would be good to build a school that would be free of charge. Originally, I thought I would build the school in Uganda.

Then shortly before my wedding, I was fortunate to be presented two acres of land in Arusha, Tanzania by my father-in-law-to-be. He said to me, “Do you think you could raise enough money to build a school for the children in this village? Could you build a school on this land?”

I went back to Australia and began fundraising, and a friend called Agnes gave me my first $10. My dad introduced me to Armidale Central Rotary then they started to support St Jude’s with a “Buy a Brick” campaign with immense support from the Armidale, Tamworth, Inverell, Guyra and Walcha Rotary clubs, my parents’ friends and family, churches and schools in Armidale and Inverell.

We raised enough for the first classroom block and David Stellar, a Rotarian and council engineer –came with a group from Armidale Central Rotary club to build it. After that, I spoke to the Gosford North Rotary club who fundraised and came to build a second classroom block.

From there it all snowballed. I knew my initial vision – all those late nights talking with Gertrude about fighting poverty – was on its way to fruition.
Rotary members helping to build the first classroom.

How did you meet your husband Richard?

During my time in Uganda, I travelled with a friend to Tanzania to go on safari. Richard was my safari driver! We went out for seven years before marrying in 2001.

We have four very energetic children: Nathaniel (born 2001), Jacob (2003), Isabella (2008) and Louisa (2012).

What has been your greatest challenge in establishing St Jude’s?

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of building a school in Tanzania is interacting with the community leaders, businesses, local workers and adapting to the culture. For a foreign, white woman to suddenly begin constructing and operating a school in Tanzania, there were more than a few hurdles I had to navigate.

The most important step I took was reassuring parents that we weren’t just another NGO that was here one minute and gone the next. I wasn’t going anywhere and was fully committed to providing their children with the best possible education.

I would be building more classrooms, buying more buses and growing St Jude’s so it would be the best school in the region. Their children would always have a place, regardless if their sponsors dropped out – as long as they kept their grades up, they would always be welcome.

People told me that I could not build a free private school. However on my desk, I have a statue of St Jude and behind me a picture of St Jude, who is the patron saint of hopeless causes. My first donation was $10 and I had no building experience before moving to Africa, so the likelihood of the school actually getting off the ground was pretty hopeless!

Anyway, I believed that with hard work, passion, and prayer you can get through anything. I still believe that today. Trying to find money – it now costs over AU $7 million to operate our three schools and two boarding campuses – finding enough staff and trying to keep on top of the growth – we now have near 2000 students in the school with 1400 in boarding- these are the sorts of big challenges I have faced.

Another challenge is finding staff who can cope with growth and new initiatives. Most people like sticking to habits, but at St Jude’s we need staff who thrive with change.

However, we are all ordinary people who are passionate and that helps you to overcome all the headaches which come every minute!
Gemma, Richard and their family.

What has been the most rewarding aspect?

Seeing the students’ sheer enjoyment at school and their thirst for knowledge is by far the best thing about St Jude’s. I’ve watched students mature into young adults and to see their progress still blows my mind. The fact that these children come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and maintain a certain spirit and verve for education is worth all of the hard work and sacrifices.

Also seeing staff develop over the many years of running the school for example one of our first drivers now oversees a team of over 20 bus drivers, or one of our original cleaners has been working in sponsorship administration and a lovely man who first came to teach PE now oversees 3 schools!

How often do you go back to Australia?

Every year I make an annual tour of Australia to spread the word about St Jude’s and catch up with supporters and Rotary groups who have been with me since the beginning. In between the busy schedule of events I am able to see my mum and brothers which is always fantastic.

Sadly, I am not able to take my family with me every year as the trip is too rigorous, so Richard and I try to organise a family visit every two to three years back to Australia.

What do you miss most about Australia?

Oh, that’s easy. It’s definitely my family time with my mum, brothers and their families. I also miss a good steak as everything over here has to be boiled for a week first!

Your favourite quote?

This too will pass – it has helped me over and over again in trying to get through the bad times that come through time to time. It’s very true that bad times always pass and you just have to be patient.

Where do you see St Jude’s in another 20 years?

In another 20 years I really hope to see alumni on our school boards.

I’ve already started seeing alumni popping up in businesses in town. They’re all in junior positions at the moment as they’re just starting out, but I know they’ll climb the ladder over the next few years.

In time, I think there will be alumni who are government leaders and ministers, doctors leading hospitals, and CEOs. There will be nothing better than when I walk into the hospital and the doctor is one of our alumni, or when I’m getting a flight and the pilot is one of our alumni, or going to the bank and the manager is an alumni. I’m looking forward to that.

What is your role at St Jude’s today?

My role is twofold. First, compliance and governance and then supporting our managers. In regards to compliance and governance, we have six boards. Each school has a school board and then those three school boards are connected under the umbrella of our international NGO board.

We also have a charity board in Australia that oversees all compliance and matters concerning all donations and sponsorship support coming from Australians and another in the US with the same functions.

The other part is helping my managers to problem solve, process and implement new initiatives. There are eight critical managers I work with closely.

How has COVID affected the school?

St Jude’s has been through a lot of dark times, but I’ve learnt that if you look hard, there’s always an opportunity for positivity.

So, even though closing the school in 2020 was a dark time, I think it brought our staff, our Parent Committee and our whole community together. We’ve come out stronger and more united.

I’d like to interview you for an article/project/ podcast. How can I get in touch?

We love doing Zooms with Rotary clubs, schools and businesses. So, please get in touch.
Some of the more than 1800 students whose life is changing because of St Jude's.