Written by Wendy Mak
I’m rarely “in awe” of someone. But today I was. AND also really humbled.
I am a ordered list
I am an unordered list
Some of you may know that my goal is to help women tell their story to the world. One amazing story (and woman) at a time. To do this, I’m launching my “Amazing Women” interview series.
And boy is Chantelle inspiring.
What makes her story amazing is that she had a pretty rough start to life herself. By the time she’d left high school, Chantelle’s life had been affected by domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse and suicide attempts.
In her own words, “I was a pretty messed up kid and I left school believing that the only way I’d ever be happy, was if I made a lot of money”.
So after university, Chantelle (a Melbourne girl) set up a web company with a friend and (in short), made lots of money. But by her own admission, she partied away her cash, “living a Paris Hilton lifestyle, partying, spending a fortune on clothes, and having a cool boyfriend with the cool car.”
Then she realised she was desperately unhappy. Unfulfilled. And that’s when Chantelle’s story REALLY began.
Q: Tell us how you came to be in Sierra Leone.
A: Through a mentor’s suggestion I signed up for a leadership program in Sierra Leone to help build schools. The funny thing was I knew nothing about the situation I was about to put myself in. I didn’t even know where Sierra Leone was on a map, and I had very naive visions of me coming in to Africa as a white savior.
[At the time Sierra Leone had just come out of a bloody civil war and was one of the poorest countries in the world].
Q: What was your first impression of being there?
A: On our first night we went to a home for street kids where we’d be spending the night. It was pitch black, and our team leader walked through this house and flung open a door to a room where I’d be sleeping. I hadn’t even really been camping before so I was completely shocked.
There was just a dirty mattress, a brown mosquito net and it was covered in concrete dust. Our guide must have seen the horror on my face because he took me to another room where the street kids actually slept. There were just two mattresses with 10 children lying back to back because that was the only place they had to sleep. That was kind of a light bulb moment for me.
Q: What happened when you returned to Australia?
A: For 6 months I tried to pretend nothing had happened. I tried to go back to the partying lifestyle and then I decided “I can’t do this anymore”. So I left the web company, broke up with my boyfriend and co-founded One Girl with Dave Dixon.
Q: You made some big financial sacrifices to work on One Girl, namely selling your flat! Tell us why you did that.
A: I’d gotten in to a bit of debt (after leaving the web company). I was working on One Girl and doing freelance web work to keep my head above water. I wasn’t passionate about my job and I had a choice – I could be miserable for 2 years working as a web designer to pay off my debts OR I could sell my flat, pay my debts and use the rest of the money to keep working on One Girl.
[Which Chantelle did for 2 years without pay, using the money from the sale of her flat to support herself].
Q: Did you have doubters?
A: My friends said it was the stupidest thing to do, once I hit 30 I’d regret it. My dad said “Nooooo!!!! What are you doing?”
[After running out of her money in December 2012, and with $1,000 left in her account, the One Girl board of directors approved a salary for Chantelle to continue working on the program – just in the nick of time.]
Q: Since that time, what has One Girl achieved?
A: We have 200 girls on scholarship (to go to school).
We also have 10 trained women across 5 communities to teach about menstrual health and sell biodegradable sanitary products. We discovered girls miss up to one week of school a month because they use things like newspaper, tree bark, old t-shirts to manage their period. Their clothes get stained and they get teased, they fall behind and then drop out of school.
[One Girl currently helps to make schools safer through ‘school awesomisation’ eg. building toilet blocks – so that students don’t have to go in the bushes and risk snake bites].
Q: What are you proudest of?
A: The fact that as a start up charity we’ve done the impossible. Charities can be hard to grow but we’ve got an amazing passionate group of people all around us, involved in the creation of our community in Australia and around the world.
[Last year One Girl raised approx $400,000 mainly through individual donations of less than $100 per person, and also through their fundraising initiative Do It In A Dress which takes place this month].
Q: What are the greatest life lessons you’d share with us?
A: Follow your passion. It’s cliché but true. If you’re passionate and you know you’re on earth to do something do it. Stop putting it off, even if you need to get a side job to do it. Don’t wait until all the ducks line up because they won’t.
And understand that if we don’t fail, we won’t learn. We are all so scared of failing. But the better we are at embracing failure the more successful you’ll be. [CLICK HERE TO TWEET THAT!]
Q: And finally – what do you say to those that say “yeah but you’ll never be rich working in a charity / non-profit”?
A: For me I kind of feel I’ve been in a situation where I had a lot of money but that didn’t equate to happiness / success / fulfillment. I have friends who earn a tonne of money but they’re not any happier or more fulfilled than I am. There are other ways than working in a dead end job to earn money, and I live reasonably well but now also live a fulfilled life.
To learn more about One Girl and Do It In A Dress, click here.
Amazing Women Interviews:
Chantelle was hugely touching for me because I’m a wallet giver (meaning I donate, I don’t “do”). Yet here’s a young lady doing so much and for a cause that perhaps doesn’t get much attention or focus in the media (another country, not my problem right???).
If you have found Chantelle in any way inspiring – please join us in the comments area to let her know – she and the One Girl team deserve to hear it.
PS. This is the first in a series of interviews on inspirational women that I hope to do. If you know someone in your community or in business who has an amazing story to tell, get in touch with me. I’d love to find out more….