Q & A with Gemma Sisia

A 2016 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/cattle on motorbikes/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 re 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 Vincents 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 Ed at University of New England, Armidale.

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 myself 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.

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 Dip Ed, I volunteered in Uganda at a girls centre teaching maths, 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?

While in Uganda I became close friends with the art teacher, a local girl named Gertrude. We would often talk about how to break the poverty cycle for the underprivileged girls, and concluded that without raising the standards of education across the board, no amount of foreign money could alleviate the widespread poverty that’s rampant throughout East Africa. That’s where the seed of building a school was planted.

I was fortunate to have been presented two acres of land from the father of my soon-to-be husband, a Tanzanian named Richard, who was a village chairman in the Moshono village in Arusha, Tanzania. 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 half acre?

I went back to Australia and began fundraising through a “Buy a Brick” campaign with the immense support of the Armidale, Tamworth and Inverell Rotary and Inner Wheel clubs. From there it snowballed. I constantly encouraged people to just spread the word about my vision, and reach out to as many community members as possible. As word kept spreading, I organised to fly a team of volunteers from the Armidale Central Rotary Club to Tanzania to help build the first classroom. That’s when 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 have four very energetic children: Nathaniel (born 2001), Jacob (2003), Isabella (2008) and our newest edition, 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 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 $6 milion 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.

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 kid’s 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.

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. Sadly, I am not able to take my family with me every year as the trip is too rigorous. In between the busy schedule of events I am able to see my mum and brothers which is always fantastic.

What’s your favourite thing about Africa?

Seeing our local staff come in as shy, nervous and very quiet people, and watching them grow in confidence, skill level and leadership. It’s thanks to all the staff that the kids love the school so much.

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.

How would you describe yourself in three words?

Mother. Educator. Blessed.
Some of the more than 1800 students whose life is changing because of St Jude's.