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A Bonza Baxter
18 / 07 / 2014
Chantelle Baxter is the co-founder and Chief Inspiration Officer at One Girl – an organisation dedicated to empowering girls through education. The organisation is one of Australia’s fastest growing Not-for-Profits, with a number of successful programs being implemented in Sierra Leone – from school scholarships to providing girls with sanitary pads so they don’t miss school. Chantelle is also one of the brains behind ‘Do it in a Dress‘, a quirky fundraising venture encouraging participants to don school dresses in non-traditional environments, with money raised supporting One Girl initiatives in Sierra Leone.
Chantelle will be providing the keynote address at our upcoming launch of ‘Rosie’ (rosierespect.org.au) on 6 August at Federation Square (from 10am-11am). Rosie is a ‘one-stop-shop’ website for young women with information on everything – from ethical fashion to study tips, from drama-free love to getting your first job. As we like to say around the office, Rosie is Sheila’s little sister. Rosie is an initiative of the Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls which enables the VWT (publisher of Sheilas) to undertake national harm-prevention work. For more information about the project or the launch, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call on (03) 9642 0422.
We couldn’t think of a more inspiring young woman to speak at this upcoming event – and in sharing information around the office, it became pretty clear that Chantelle Baxter was also someone deserving of a ‘Bonza Sheila’ gong. She gives us an insight into her world in talking with Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper. Many thanks, Chantelle!
Sarah Capper [SC]: In your childhood and teens you had a lot of tough experiences – you’ve written about it being marred with domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse and suicide attempts. You managed to turn all of this around – quite radically – and I’m wondering if there was a catalyst that bridged these two opposing worlds – that of your late teens and early 20s being about instant gratification versus what you’ve become renowned for today – helping others, in particular women, in creating a much better world?
Chantelle Baxter [CB]: Yes! One day I took a moment to ask myself the question, am I REALLY happy? I’d created a life for myself full of shopping, drinking, drugs and partying, with the naive idea that having lots of money and spending my days getting wasted would make me happy. After years of this lifestyle, I realised it wasn’t. I needed a drastic change.
A friend of mine recommended a leadership course to turn my life around, so I did that, and then became a total self-help junkie. Books, courses, coaches – you name it. I did it! Through that process I decided that I need to go to Africa to ‘find myself’. I ended up in Sierra Leone helping to build a primary school for children that had lost their parents. That trip was a game changer. I realised I’d been wasting my life and all the opportunities I had just taken for granted.
I was destined for something bigger. Something that makes a difference. I could either choose to destroy myself and waste my life, or I could make the world better. I chose the latter.
SC: What advice would you give to a young woman who is in a similar position to what you were struggling with – what was the key to your personal change?
CB: Getting help. Which is challenging – because back then there is no way I would EVER admit to needing help. Asking for help takes vulnerability and courage. I thought I was the toughest girl around, nothing could mess with me. It was only because a friend intervened that I finally started to take action.
At the very least, I’d find someone to talk to about what was going on. I’ve recently discovered an amazing (and free) program called Alateen – which supports teenagers who have grown up in alcoholic homes, or homes affected by other kinds of abuse. Get yourself in there and meet other kids just like you. You’ll realise you’re not alone, that you don’t always have to act like you’ve got it all together. Even if your home life sucks, there is hope. It can and WILL get better.
SC: A trip to Sierra Leone changed your life. From what I’ve read it was also not an easy change. Tell us a bit about the best and worst experiences of this trip?
CB: The best part was falling completely in love with the children we were building the primary school for. There were 80 children who were living in an orphanage, and every single morning they’d be on our verandah wanting hugs, games and any kind of interaction. My heart had been shut down and closed for a VERY long time, but after seeing the smile and joy on those kids faces. Kids who had NOTHING, my heart opened for the first time. They taught me that joy is possible no matter what the circumstances.
The worst part was the time I spent at a local hospital. I was given the task of taking nine boys to be circumcised (as you do). While I was waiting at the hospital, I noticed a very thin woman. She kept approaching the nurses’ station and then was asked to sit back down. She did this over and over again, it went on for hours.
Eventually she approached me, and as she stood in front of me, she just said a single world. “Help.” – I didn’t understand what she meant, until she pointed to this bundle attached to the front of her body. As she peeled open this bundle, I saw two of the sickest babies I’d ever seen in my entire life. Just skin and bones.
I found out that this woman had given birth to twins just a few days earlier, then walked 20km to the hospital. She was too thin to produce any milk, so the babies were literally starving just a few days after being born. I panicked, gave her all the money I had, raced around the community trying to get formula and bottles and looking for ways to save those little babies.
I went back and forth about 4 or 5 times from the corner store to the hospital – and when I went back for the final time, she was gone. I was overcome with a sense of helplessness. And I decided that i wanted to leave Sierra Leone. I couldn’t handle it.
I’ll never know what happened to those kids, but I realised that even though I couldn’t make a difference for them – I could make a difference for the 80 children who we were building the school for. They kept me in Sierra Leone.
SC: You’re co-founder of One Girl. And you took a real plunge to fund the first two years of that to enable it to happen. What was driving you – I read that some family and friends didn’t quite appreciate the leap you were making – so what sustained you?
CB: I was 24 when I started One Girl and I’d already spent a number of years in a profession I didn’t like. After going to Sierra Leone, I KNEW that I had to do something about what I’d seen and experienced. I wasn’t willing to waste my life doing something I didn’t love. Life is too short for that. Call it blind determination, or destiny – I don’t know. I just knew that my life was about making the world better, specifically for women and girls.
When I saw what the women and girls lived through, I knew that I could overcome anything to give them even just a small amount of privileges I’d been lucky enough to receive. I could relate to the challenges they faced, and I believed that I could do something to change it.
Whenever you’re starting anything, no one will believe you can do it. So many people told me I was crazy. What they don’t realise is that EVERYTHING starts small. You are capable of achieving anything that you dream of – if you are willing to adapt and work your guts off to get it.
SC: Tell us about One Girl and Do it in a Dress – what’s been the most rewarding things about being involved in this movement?
CB: Of course there is the obvious part of watching our girls in Sierra Leone learn and grow. We’re building two schools this year, giving 200 scholarships and then providing financial and business training to more than 11,000 girls as well. Many of our girls have been on scholarships for almost 4 years now, and I get to watch them grow, change and develop. I love that.
The second part is watching the world community come alive at the thought of educating girls. So many of our Do It In A Dress participants move on to becoming One Girl Ambassadors. And then we watch them light the world on fire. We’ve seen Ambassadors quit their jobs to follow their passions – they’ve launched sanitary pad companies, tutoring businesses, and so many other projects – with profits going to support girls.
I get to watch One Girl supporters come alive with the projects they take on to help girls in Sierra Leone. They achieve things they never thought was possible, and during our Do It In A Dress campaign, our phone rings off the hook with people calling us to tell us what they’ve achieved. I love watching people come alive and step into their power. Gives me goosebumps just talking about it!
SC: How many trips have you made back to Sierra Leone and what changes have you stood out to you as a consequence of your work?
CB: I’ve been back to Sierra Leone four times since that initial trip, and I’ll be heading back again in November. In November there will be a brand new school which didn’t exist before (so that will be awesome), but as always it comes back to the girls. As they grow up they become more confident, their English improves, they learn new languages and aren’t as shy around us. They love sharing what they’ve learnt, and I’m constantly amazed at how much they absorb in such a short period of time.
When I first met some of our original scholarship girls, they barely said a word. Within a year, many had learnt new languages and we couldn’t keep them quiet! They step into roles as leaders in their community. It’s so inspiring.
SC: You write a very honest blog about where you are at with life. You’ve talked about professional gains coming at the cost of personal ones. You’ve written about this year being about ‘fitness’ and ‘finances’. What do you get out of sharing these personal experiences and journeys?
CB: I grew up in a house of secrets. Emotions were shameful. Feelings were shameful. In fact, being anything except perfect was shameful. Sometimes I wonder if my commitment to absolute openness and honesty is in reaction to that.
I meet a lot of people, and hear stories from men and women from all walks of life. So many of us harbour these secrets and pretend to be something we’re not into order to please those around us. What I’ve realised is that it doesn’t matter where you are born, how much money your family had growing up, what religion you’re a part of – we all face challenges. And the way we connect with those around us, is by sharing our challenges and vulnerability.
It’s so easy to look at people who we deem as more successful than us, and imagine they have a perfect life and they’ve got it all together. It’s rubbish – we’re all making it up as we go along. I’m getting more and more comfortable with my humanity. I know that millions of other people face the same challenges I do. Better that I own it and help them feel more ‘normal’ rather than putting on a front of perfection.
SC: Since we’re on the topic, how do you maintain ‘balance’?
CB: It’s a dance. I’ve had to learn balance, and I learnt it the hard way. I used to work myself to burn out every 2 months or so, and then take a weekend or two off to recover. These days I catch myself before I hit that point. I’m part of a support group that focuses a lot on self-care. Because I was never taught to take care of myself when I was growing up, I needed to learn these skills as an adult. Growing up in an alcoholic home means that you are taught to ALWAYS put others needs ahead of your own (a surefire way to hurt yourself).
These days I attend my support group meetings, do yoga and meditate every morning, journal and eat clean and healthy home cooked food. If I sense I’m getting out of balance, I’ll scale back my weekend plans and spend time cleaning my apartment and getting myself back on track. I’m starting to get good at it now – but I was TERRIBLE at balance for many many years.
SC: Name a woman who inspires you and why.
CB: Eve Ensler. She had an insanely messed up upbringing, and she’s channeled that hurt into a movement that changes the lives of millions of women across the world. She took her past and made it count. I want to do the same.
SC: If you could host a dinner party with any women from history who would they be?
CB: Hmm.. I’m not too good with history. Let me see. I know Maya Angelou isn’t long passed, but I’d love to have her at the table to share her presence and her wisdom. I’d love to meet Princess Di as well. Perhaps Joan of Arc for being such an extraordinary leader and so far ahead of her time.
SC: Dare I ask, what’s next for Chantelle Baxter?
CB: America, baby! I’m starting to put together a business case to setup One Girl in the US – and I want to be living and working from there within the next 1.5 – 2 years. We have a huge goal of educating 1 million girls by 2020, and I don’t think it’s possible if we keep the focus only in Australia. We need to go bigger.
America – here we come!
SC: Chantelle Baxter, I have no doubt you will conquer ‘bigger’. America, watch out, I say. Thanks so much for being our Bonza Sheila this month and we look forward to seeing you next month at the Rosie launch!
Chantelle is the co-founder and Chief Inspiration Officer at One Girl – an organisation dedicated to giving 1 million girls across Africa access to education by 2020. In her former life, Chantelle was a web designer, aspiring shopaholic and party animal, but she gave it all up after a life changing experience in Sierra Leone, West Africa. In her spare time, Chantelle enjoys yoga, kite surfing and writing about herself in the third person. Chantelle has been recognised as one of Mamamia’s Most Clickable Women (2013), Cosmopolitan Magazines 30 Influential Aussie Women Under 30 and Melbourne’s Top 100 Most Influential People (The Age). You can visit Chantelle’s website here.